(New York) – The death sentence against Mir Quasem Ali, a central executive committee member of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, should be suspended with immediate effect, Human Rights Watch said today. The Supreme Court’s rejection on August 30, 2016, of his review petition means that Quasem Ali could be hanged within days once the deadline to appeal for presidential clemency expires.
Quasem Ali was convicted for war crimes allegedly committed by forces under his command during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. He was tried in 2014 by the country’s specially constituted International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).
In March 2016, the Supreme Court set aside a number of charges but upheld Quasem Ali’s conviction and death penalty in one case of murder. While hearing Quasem Ali’s appeal, Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha criticized the attorney general, prosecutors, and investigators for producing insufficient evidence in the trial court.
On August 24, a group of United Nations experts urged the Bangladeshi government to annul the death sentence against Quasem Ali and grant him a retrial, noting how the proceedings had reportedly been “marred” by “irregularities.” Several prominent international observers have expressed serious concerns over previous death penalty convictions handed down by the ICT due to concerns over fair trials.
“It is critical that the Bangladesh government ensures justice for the awful crimes against civilians in 1971, but that requires it to uphold international fair trial standards,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If there’s even a shadow of doubt about fairness, as in Quasem Ali’s case, the authorities should set aside the death penalty.”
Human Rights Watch also called upon the authorities to release or charge Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem, Quasem Ali’s son, who was forcibly disappeared on August 9 by state authorities. Mir Ahmed, who acts as his father’s legal counsel, was detained late at night by men in plainclothes who told family members that they were government security forces. In spite of credible information to the contrary, including through eyewitnesses, the government denies having him in custody. His family has requested the government to, at a minimum, allow Mir Ahmed to attend his father’s funeral in the event the government proceeds with his execution.
“It is shocking that Bangladesh’s security forces have picked up Mir Ahmed Bin Quasem, apparently simply because he is the son of Quasem Ali, and then denies it,” said Adams. “This is part of a very disturbing pattern of arbitrary arrests of people the government simply doesn’t like.”
Quasem Ali was charged with 14 counts of abduction, confinement, and torture, and two counts of murder allegedly committed by forces under his command, known as the Al-Badr, during the war. Quasem Ali was allegedly one of the leaders of Al-Badr, a paramilitary organization that supported the then-West Pakistan army against the East Pakistan army and was responsible for some of the worst crimes during the independence struggle.
On November 3, 2014, Quasem Ali was found guilty of 10 charges, including two counts of murder. He was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity on two charges of murder. Quasem Ali appealed the conviction on November 30, 2014.
On March 8, 2016, the appeals court acquitted Quasem Ali of one count and changed the penalty in another while upholding eight counts, including a death penalty charge. During the appeal at the Supreme Court, the chief justice called the prosecution and its investigation agency “very incompetent.” He accused the prosecution of dealing with gathering evidence in the case against Quasem Ali “half-heartedly” and with “no responsibility.” The chief justice said he was “shocked” and that the prosecution’s case against Quasem Ali was full of contradictions. He expressed particular concern at the prosecution’s failure to rebut the accused’s alibi defense, which put Quasem Ali in Dhaka on the day of the murder in Chittagong. “Defence could produce a series of documentary evidences in support of their alibi. But the prosecution and the investigation agency were very incompetent.”
In March 2016, Quasem Ali filed a petition asking for another review of his case. That petition, his final chance for a rehearing, was denied on August 30.
Trials before the ICT have been replete with violations of the right to a fair trial. Intercepted communications between the prosecution and judges which were leaked to the Economist revealed prohibited and biased communications that marred several trials. The ICT’s response on several occasions to those who have raised objections about the trials has been to file contempt charges against them in an apparent attempt to silence criticism rather than to answer substantively or to rectify any errors.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its long-standing call for the government of Bangladesh to restore fundamental rights to those accused of war crimes. Bangladesh’s problematic article 47A(1) of the constitution specifically strips those accused of war crimes of their fundamental rights, including the right to an expeditious trial by an independent and impartial court or tribunal. This pernicious amendment to the constitution allows the ICT overly broad discretion to deny those charged with war crimes the same rights and procedures as other defendants.
Human Rights Watch also called on the Bangladeshi government to impose a moratorium on the death penalty and plan to abolish it. Over 20 people have been executed since the Awami League government took office in 2009. On August 27, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty against a member of the banned Jama’at-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh for the killing of two judges in 2005.
“While many in Bangladesh believe Quasem Ali to be guilty and want him punished, justice is only served through fair trials,” said Adams. “Authorities owe it victims to establish guilt with proper evidence rather than fast-tracking hangings after unfair trials.”