Exclusive Bangladesh: Jamaat trials

Photo: AP/Suvra Kanti Das, Update/Joe Cook

This is the first in a series of articles concerning the political climate of Bangladesh. Some of the information provided is exclusive, only to be found on the Update. This information was gathered via original research.


Two men were hanged in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, on 23 November. They were convicted of war crimes. This has caused an uproar in Bangladesh, with around 500 people killed in clashes with the police after hearing of these men’s sentencings.

We spoke with a source who wished to remain anonymous to find out more about this situation.

The two men, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid  and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, were members of the controversial political party Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist party in Bangladesh.

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Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mujahid, one of the executed. Photo: presstv.ir

The trials of the men and other Jamaat leaders have been highly criticized by groups like Human Rights Watch for being unfair and opaque. They are viewed by groups like HRW as nothing more than political strategy in a nation where a scandal like Watergate is considered standard election procedure.

How did this controversial trial start?

Bangladesh was created by the British Empire in 1947, with the partition of India. Two states were created, India and Pakistan, which was split into West (Modern day Pakistan) and East (Modern day Bangladesh). Most of the power in the former Pakistans was concentrated in the West, which caused resentment in the culturally distinct East. Said resentment was heated up to boiling point until Pakistan tried to institute Urdu as the official language of both Pakistans. Urdu is traditionally only spoken in West Pakistan, with East Pakistanis speaking Bengali instead. This was the final straw. The Prime Minister of East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, declared independence in 1971. From there, a bloody ‘Liberation War’ began.

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Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, or Sheikh Mujib. Photo: bangladeshembassymanila.org

During the war, there was a faction of Bengalis who wished to remain part of Pakistan. Some of the members of this faction – who would go on to be influential members of Jamaat – are being charged with contributing to a genocide and mass rape of some 3 million people. These members included the two men and the head of Jamaat himself (who was convicted, but had his death sentence commuted due to his age).

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Leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Ghulam Azam. Photo: pakistantoday.com.pk

There exists a notion among Bangladeshis that Mujib decided not to indict the Jamaat leaders on any charges because “he didn’t want the birth of a nation to be so bloody”,  and sought reconciliation, so claims the source.

The current PM of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, won the national election in 2008 for her party, the Awami League. The party gained popularity by promising to bring the perpetrators to justice. This runs contrary to the promises of Sheikh Mujibur, who happens to be Sheikh Hasina’s father.

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: ndtv.com

This decision was also controversial for another reason. The opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), is in a coalition with Jamaat. The alignment of these two parties has been called more political than ideological, with the leader of the BNP, Khaleda Zia – widow of a popular army general who fought alongside Sheikh Mujibur – is believed by some to have allied herself with Jamaat for no reason other than to gain votes against her longtime rival, Sheikh Hasina.

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BNP leader Khaleda Zia. Photo: indianexpress.com

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have alternated control over ruling Bangladesh ever since 1991, with Zia most recently serving as Prime Minister between 2001 and 2006, and Hasina ruling since 2008.

After claims that Awami League (Hasina’s party) would rig the elections, the BNP boycotted them in 2014, causing them to have no formal representation in the Bengali parliament.

The first indictments for Jamaat leaders were issued in 2010, but the most important leaders, including Ghulam Azam (the head of Jamaat) weren’t convicted until 2012-2013 (Ghulam died of a stroke in 2014).

“What it looks like… and what it might be as well… is just that members of the opposition are being pulled in” suggests the source. “Of the two women, [Hasina] is… much more strategic.”

“Cracks in the BNP management started showing”

The information and investigation used in the Crimes Tribunal was gathered by international UN groups. Once the details were collected, the process of carrying out the trials was handed over to the Bangladeshi government. At this point, groups like Human Rights Watch – which had previously endorsed the trial – claimed that they were nontransparent and unfair to the accused.

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High Court Building in Bangladesh, where the International Crimes Tribunal was held. Photo: Wikipedia.org

Some of the criticisms include the prosecution calling 41 witnesses, but the defendants (Jamaat) being restricted to 4. The defense also sent several copies of affidavits of key witnesses to the prosecution, but they were never used. In fact, these affidavits were claimed to be forgeries by the court, which used this claim to the prosecution’s advantage.

In response to the trials, BNP (Jamaat’s coalition partner) called for a ‘hartal’. A hartal (pronounced HAR-TELL) is a politically organized protest and general strike. A party will call on its supporters to stop going to work and protest on the streets. “[During a hartal you could be]  driving down the street and a group of men [go to] your car and smash all of your windows and hurt you in the process.” Claims the source. “If you drive [in] certain [places around Dhaka] chances are… [you’ll see people] light buses on fire.”

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Jamaat supporters during a hartal. Photo: news.xinhuanet.com

These hartals were responded to with swift government action, with Sheikh Hasina making the controversial decision to order the police force to violently clamp down on protestors. The ensuing clashes resulted in approximately 500 people dying. There were reports of protestors being hacked to death and activists firebombing government forces.

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Jamaat supporters in clashes with government forces. Photo: thenews.com.pk

Much of the violence and controversy has to do with the political landscape of Bangladesh that is divided between two very powerful women. Come back to the Update next week to read more about them.


Sources include David Bergman, The Economist, The Guardian and an inside source who wished to remain anonymous

The information presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of The Update. We are reporting either the facts or opinions held by third parties related to the subject of the article.