ON September 3, Bangladesh executed a top perpetrator of crimes against humanity, Mir Quasem Ali, 64, after he exhausted all options under law. The country’s Supreme Court had upheld the death sentence for him. As the business tycoon refused to seek presidential clemency, the execution was carried out at the Kashimpur jail outside Dhaka.
Mir Quasem Ali’s party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which had violently opposed East Pakistan’s independence from Pakistan, criticised the conviction and twice called for nationwide hartals but failed to make even the slightest impact.
However, Pakistan, as before, came out with a strong reaction, remarking that Mir Quasem Ali was executed “for the alleged crimes committed before December 1971, through a flawed judicial process”. In protest, the Bangladesh foreign office summoned the acting Pakistani High Commissioner, Samina Mehtab, and deplored Islamabad’s statement as amounting to “direct interference” in Bangladesh’s internal affairs. “Pakistan statement is completely a direct interference in Bangladesh's internal affairs,” said Additional Foreign Secretary Kamrul Ahsan, who summoned Samina Mehtab.
In a note verbale handed over to the Pakistani envoy on September 4, Dhaka also deplored the Pakistan Foreign Ministry’s statement of the day before that “Pakistan is deeply saddened” over the execution.
Dhaka said: “By openly siding with the Bangladesh nationals convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, Pakistan once again acknowledged its direct involvement and complicity in the mass atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971.”
Turkey was the only other country to express “sorrow” over the execution. Bangladesh protested, saying: “Such reaction over the execution of a war criminal is tantamount to interference in matters pertaining to Bangladesh.”
Scars of war The Liberation War left an estimated three million people dead and half a million women raped. Two war crimes tribunals, formed in 2010, 39 years after the war, have so far disposed of 27 cases of wartime atrocities and convicted over 35 major perpetrators. Some of them were sentenced to death. Most of those convicted were from the Jamaat-e-Islami party. Mir Quasem Ali was the sixth convict to be executed.
The earlier death sentences drew similar reactions from Pakistan, which adopted resolutions in its national parliament and provincial assemblies calling the Bangladesh war criminals “martyrs”. Bangladesh reacted sharply then, too. In the latest case, Bangladesh strongly rejected Pakistan’s claim that the trials were “recriminations for political gains”. Mir Quasem Ali was tried for specific crimes he committed during the war and it had nothing to do with his political identity or affiliation, Bangladesh said. By challenging the judicial authority of a foreign country, Pakistan had blatantly dishonoured the sentiments of the people of Bangladesh and the spirit of the Liberation War, the government said.
Misinterpretation of 1974 agreement In the latest case, Pakistan called upon Bangladesh to uphold what it described as its commitment under the Tripartite Agreement of 1974, wherein it was “decided not to proceed with the trials as an act of clemency”. The Pakistani statement added: “Recriminations for political gains are counterproductive. Pakistan believes that matters should be addressed with a forward looking approach in the noble spirit of reconciliation.”
According to war crimes trial campaigners, Pakistan has continuously been trying to misinterpret the India-Bangladesh-Pakistan tripartite agreement through which 195 Pakistani war criminals, including military officers and others, were allowed to go back home unpunished, along with the 93,000 prisoners of war (PoWs) after Pakistan’s unconditional surrender in Dhaka. The agreement also allowed nearly half a million Bengalis stranded in Pakistan to return home. The essential spirit of the agreement was to create an environment of good neighbourliness and peaceful coexistence.
Bangladesh, however, does not accept that the 1974 Agreement had in any way provided for clemency to Bangladeshi war criminals, including the members of the Razakar, Al-Badr and Al-Shams militias, which were manned by local people.
Bangladesh says that the “clemency” mentioned in the agreement never implied that the masterminds and perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide would continue to enjoy impunity. Also, the agreement did not in any way restrict Bangladesh from prosecuting its own citizens for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
The war crimes trials are conducted under a law passed by Bangladesh’s parliament back in 1974. The people who are being tried are also all citizens of Bangladesh. Pakistan, hence, has no moral or legal standing in criticising the trials.
Islamabad, however, evidently wishes to stand by those who sided with its army 45 years ago and to strengthen the resurfaced Pakistani loyalists to strike a blow at Bangladesh’s secular ethos.
But, if Pakistan’s statements did please a small section, the overwhelming reaction to them across Bangladesh was negative. Pakistan came across as supporting a person notorious for crimes such as torture and murder. Mir Quasem Ali led men of the notorious Al-Badr in the grabbing of a building, Mahamaya Bhaban, from a Hindu family in the port city of Chittagong. The ruthless pro-Pakistani militia renamed it Dalim Hotel and set up a torture camp there.
‘Death factory’ On November 2, 2014, Mir Quasem Ali was condemned to death by a war crimes tribunal for his role in the torture and murders at the camp. The tribunal described the camp as a “death factory”. The militia and Pakistani troops tortured to death supporters of the independence movement at the camp and threw their bodies in the Karnaphuli river nearby.
Mir Quasem Ali, who was known as the “terror of Chittagong”, turned out to be possessing a shrewd business sense. After founding the Islami Chhatra Shibir in 1977 and becoming a leader of the Jamaat, he started getting involved in businesses. He rose rapidly through the ranks in the Jamaat, and from the mid 1980s he pumped billions into the Jamaat’s coffers and virtually became the party’s financial backbone.
Mir Quasem Ali started out with non-governmental organisations and later successfully ventured into tourism, telecom, shipping, pharmaceuticals, real estate and health care. He opened schools, colleges, madrasas and a host of other institutions to consolidate the Jamaat’s financial position. He received support from the governments of Gen. Ziaur Rahman, Gen. H.M. Ershad and Begum Khaleda Zia.
Mir Quasem Ali was allegedly the main financier of the global propaganda against the war crimes trials. The Washington-based Cassidy & Associates, which calls itself a “bipartisan government relations firm”, said that it had received $25 million from the Jamaat financier for “professional service”. The British lawyer Toby Cadman, hired by the Jamaat, also tried to make the war crimes trials look questionable.
When Mir Quasem Ali was arrested in 2012, his name was removed from many positions he held in business establishments. At the time of the verdict, he was the owner of 119,534 shares of the Islami Bank, Bangladesh, the largest private sector bank in the country. Several institutions like the Ibn Sina Trust, Ibn Sina Pharmaceuticals and the Ibn Sina Medical College and Hospital are run by the trust he headed.
He was also a founding member of the Islami Bank Foundation, which runs a number of establishments in health and education. He became the founding chairman of the Diganta Media Corporation, which floated Daily Naya Diganta and Diganta TV.
Mir Quasem Ali was once the country director of the NGO Rabita al-Alam al-Islami, which has West Asian backing and was accused of using funds raised in the name of Rohingya refugees for armed activity. It is widely alleged that he first built up his empire using “foreign funds”. After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Jamaat’s guru, Ghulam Azam, and he ran a propaganda in West Asian countries that “Indian agents” were destroying mosques and killing Muslims. They collected huge amounts of money on the pretext of building mosques and madrasas and used them to fund their own businesses.
Mir Quasem Ali was the son of a fourth-class telegraph office employee. He was the Chittagong City Islami Chhatra Sangha president and the chief of the Al-Badr militia. He was later made a provincial executive member of the Pakistan Islami Chhatra Sangha and appointed the East Pakistan Islami Chhatra Sangha general secretary.
Following Pakistan’s surrender to the India-Bangladesh Joint Command on December 16, 1971, he went into hiding. In a changed political climate in 1975, however, the Jamaat got the chance to enter politics in independent Bangladesh, thanks to Gen. Ziaur Rahman. When the Islami Chhatra Shibir, which was just the Islami Chhatra Sangha under a new name, started its journey, he became its first president in 1977. Perhaps his financial and political success made him believe he would continue to evade justice. But he failed. Backed by a solid national will, the war crimes trials are seen as the fulfilment of a national obligation of Bangladesh to heal historical wounds. Pakistan is likely to suffer embarrassments as the court proceedings uncover the brutalities that its military and its local Islamist allies committed. Continued denial will make any reconciliation quite impossible.