One of the most prominent suspected war criminals from Bangladesh’s war of independence has been sentenced to death more than four decades following the commission of his many crimes.
In the first verdict handed out by Bangladesh’s second war crimes tribunal, Abul Kalam Azad (also known as Bachchu Razakar) will die by hanging after the court found him guilty of arranging large-scale atrocities during the 1971 war, including genocide, rape, abduction and mass murder.
A former popular television host and a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, or J-e-I, Bangladesh’s premier Islamist party, Azad was convicted of seven charges and acquitted in one other (torture). (He was expelled from J-e-I last year.)
“We have taken due notice of the intrinsic gravity of the offence of 'genocide’ and murders as ‘crimes against humanity’ being offenses which are particularly shocking to the conscience of mankind,” the verdict stated.
BBC reported that Azad is believed to have murdered six Hindus himself and raped six other Hindu women during the chaotic war, which may have killed up to 3,000,000 people and forced millions more to flee to neighboring India as refugees.
An estimated 200,000 women were raped in the maelstrom.
Bangladesh’s BDNews24 commented that this “historic” verdict may pave the way for justice catching up with other Islamist leaders who sided with Pakistan against Bengali nationalists.
(From 1947 to 1971, Bangladesh was called East Pakistan and was part of the country of Pakistan following the partition of British India.)
In 1971, as a junior member of the student wing of the J-e-I party, Azad helped the Pakistani army by identifying and informing on locals who were sympathetic to Bengali nationalism, especially Hindus, who were particularly singled out for violence.
Bangladesh news agencies reported that Azad was the head of a force called the Khardiyar Military, which collaborated with (West) Pakistani occupation soldiers and terrorized 50 villages, killing and raping many civilians.
However, there remains one significant problem with this conviction: Nobody knows where Azad is.
Azad was last seen in March 2012, at about the same time the tribunal was established.
Bangladesh media reported that the convicted war criminal is in hiding and that the country’s security and intelligence agencies have failed to locate him. Reportedly, Bangladeshi intelligence suspect Azad crossed into West Bengal, India, last April and eventually made it all the way to Pakistan through Nepal.
“There’s an arrest warrant against [Azad]. We are looking for him,” Bangladesh’s Inspector General of Police, or IGP, Hasan Mahmood Khandaker told BDNews24.com.
“We are looking for Bachchu Razakar," General Mokhlesur Rahman of the Rapid Action Battalion, or RAB, an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladeshi police, told media. "If his location is found to be in Bangladesh, the RAB will conduct operations to nab him.”
Azad’s two sons, brother-in-law and two other people have already been detained by Bangladesh police for allegedly helping him to escape the country.
It is unclear how Azad’s case will be disposed of given his absence.
“[Azad] may appeal against the sentence when he is arrested or surrenders,” Abdus Shukur Khan, Azad’s state appointed counsel, told Bangladesh media.
Meanwhile, the war crimes tribunal, which is heavily promoted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, is trying nine other similar cases simultaneously, with verdicts on two expected shortly.
“The long-cherished expectation of the nation has been fulfilled. We want to free the nation of its stigma (of crimes against humanity). So, we seek cooperation from all,” Hasina told fellow Awami League Party officials on Monday night, according to BDnews24.
However, since the war crimes tribunal is not endorsed by the United Nations, some have accused Hasina of adhering to a political agenda in prosecuting these cases. (The Awami League is a bitter opponent of J-e-I.)
The Awami League repeatedly claims that, during the 1971 conflict, J-e-I opposed independence for Bangladesh and allegedly collaborated with the (West) Pakistani authorities.
Virtually all the defendants in the war crimes cases are either members of the J-e-I or affiliated with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, raising questions about the tribunals' impartiality.
Khaleda Zia, the leader of BNP and a former prime minister herself, said the trials are a farce and completely motivated by politics.