DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladesh executed two men on Sunday who were accused of war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence, a move that could spark street protests in a country already on edge after a string of terrorist attacks.
The government said that at 12:55 a.m. Sunday, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid of the Jamaat-e-Islami party were hanged at the Dhaka Central Jail.
On Wednesday, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentences for the men, former members of Parliament who had been convicted in 2013 on charges that included genocide and torture during the war. The government said the two had sought clemency with the country’s president earlier in the day but the families denied this was the case.
The government of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, set up a domestic war crimes tribunal in 2010 to bring justice for the victims of the bloody conflict. But the three-judge panel has been widely criticized by the United Nations, human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department’s office of Global Criminal Justice.
This week, five members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said in a letter to the State Department’s top South Asia official that the tribunal’s process was “deeply flawed” and that members of the House panel were concerned by reports that “democratic space is shrinking” in Bangladesh.“The right to a free and fair trial is of paramount importance in any democracy,” the letter said.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have said that the tribunal’s work does not conform to international standards and that its decisions have been arbitrary and politically motivated. In the case of Chowdhury, Human Rights Watch said in a report this week, the panel refused to accept testimony from some of his alibi witnesses. For Mujahid, it permitted only three of hundreds of potential witnesses to testify, according to the report.
“Justice and accountability for the terrible crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence are crucial, but trials need to meet international fair trial standards,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Unfair trials can’t provide real justice, especially when the death penalty is imposed.”
The issue of war crimes has been a divisive one in the predominantly Muslim country of 160 million since the war forged the new, secular nation of Bangladesh from what had been East Pakistan. The accused had fought for the Pakistani side during the conflict, which left hundreds of thousands dead.
Prosecutors had argued that Chowdhury had accompanied the Pakistani army on a village raid in April 1971 in which scores of Hindus were executed. Mujahid was accused of running a militia that systematically killed the country’s leading artists and intellectuals in the waning days of the war.
“It’s the responsibility of the nation to try those who have committed crimes against humanity and genocide. Morally speaking, it is the right thing to do, there is no doubt in my mind,” said Ali Riaz, an expert on Bangladesh who is chair of the department of politics and government at Illinois State University. But he said there were “procedural flaws” in the process that should have been addressed at the outset.
In 2013, hundreds of students and other young people massed in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square to call for capital punishment for war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah, whose eventual execution later that year sparked violent protests across the country.
News of Sunday’s executions comes as Bangladesh has been reeling under a string of terror attacks, beginning with the killing of four secular bloggers and a publisher this year by a Islamic fundamentalist group inspired by the writings of al-Qaeda. In recent days, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the shootings of three foreign nationals, two of whom have died, and vowed that more attacks will come.
Hasina’s government has denied the presence of the Islamic State in the country and said that the deaths of the foreign nationals were fomented by her political opponents and could have been a plan to disrupt the work of the war crimes tribunal.
Azad Majumder contributed to this report.