A first conviction for war crimes sparks controversyMORE than 41 years after the deaths of as many as 3m people in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan, a Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal has given its first verdict. On January 21st it sentenced Abul Kalam Azad to death in absentia for genocide and murder committed during the nine-month war in 1971. The verdict is being seen as a victory for Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and her Awami League party, who have made the tribunal an important part of her term in office.
Bangladeshis have waited decades for justice and the aims of the tribunal are broadly popular, but critics say the process has been politicised to target allies of Sheikh Hasina’s main opponent, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There have also been questions raised about its impartiality. In December The Economist reported on contacts by e-mail and Skype between the presiding judge in one of the tribunals and a lawyer in Belgium who was not an official part of the court. The judge eventually resigned and was replaced. The verdict on Mr Azad came from a second tribunal.
In the judgment Mr Azad is described as a former leader of the youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a party in then East Pakistan and still Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party today. Its youth wing was the main source of paramilitaries supporting Pakistan in its efforts to prevent East Pakistan’s independence. Its members are alleged to have abducted and murdered dozens of civilians. Mr Azad himself was accused of killing at least 12 Hindus and of rape. He then became a well-connected political figure in Bangladesh and a presenter of popular Islamic television programmes. He fled the country last year and is believed to be in Pakistan.