Motiur Rahman Nizami, the 73-year old leader of Bangladesh's second-biggest opposition party, was hanged on Wednesday for war crimes committed 45 years ago. His was the latest in a series of executions of senior opposition leaders that analysts fear may push even more people to join the rising tide of radical Muslim militancy in one of the world's most populous and poorest countries.
Law Minister Anisul Haq told Reuters that Nizami, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was hanged at Dhaka Central jail at 12.01am local time, after the Supreme Court rejected his final plea. He was a former legislator and minister, who had been sentenced to death in three charges.
The first sentencing came in October of 2014, and last January the death sentence was upheld in three of four charges — for murder, rape and the mass killing of intellectuals during the Liberation War of 1971, when what was then East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan proper and became independent as Bengali-majority Bangladesh.
Through an "International Crimes Tribunal" set up in 2010, which is in fact a domestic court, Bangladesh has been trying to bring justice to the families of victims killed during that war by troops loyal to Pakistan, even decades after the facts. Critics say the tribunal is biased and does not adhere to international standards of fair justice.
According to Bangladesh's own estimates, up to three million people died and more than 200,000 women were raped during the war. In the attempt to crush the Bengali independence movement, the Pakistani Army let loose paramilitary forces which systematically murdered civilians.
The court found Nizami guilty of, among other charges, being the head of the Al-Badr militia force and having planned the killing campaign that took place just before the end of the war, when intellectuals in the capital Dhaka were massacred.
So far, the court has sentenced 17 people to death for crimes committed during the 1971 war. Nizami is the fifth to be executed, but the one with the highest profile, as the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami — an Islamist party that ruled the country together with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2006. In the last BNP-led government, Nizami served as Minister of Agriculture and later as Minister of Industries.
The trials and executions have sparked harsh international criticism. In repeated cases, the defense has been arbitrarily limited in the number of witnesses and documents accepted by the court. Foreign governments, along with the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on Bangladesh to stop imposing the death penalty. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote in November 2015 that "given the doubts that have been raised about the fairness of trials conducted before the Tribunal, the Government of Bangladesh should not implement death penalty sentences."
Amnesty International has said that the trial and appeals processes of the tribunal have "serious flaws," and according to Human Rights Watch, the trials "have been replete with violations of the right to a fair trial." These same concerns were present in the trial against Nizami. Reports have also surfaced of one of the prosecution's witnesses allegedly having been coerced into testifying against him. "In the case of Nizami, we are particularly disturbed by the refusal of the court to hear defence witnesses in full, including most notably alibi witnesses," said senior Human Rights Watch researcher Tejshree Thapa.
Another concern is that all the people brought in front of the tribunal have been from the political opposition. "It's never only one side in a war that commits war crimes", Abbas Faiz, former Bangladesh researcher for Amnesty International, said. "We have credible evidence that also the pro-independence side in the war carried out massacres of people. But the trials are only being used to try people who are opposed to the government."
According to Thapa, the government of Bangladesh owes it to the victims of the 1971 war to ensure a proper justice process. "Without fair trials, it is impossible to know whether these accused are properly charged or whether these are politically motivated arrests and hangings," she said.
"If people lose the faith in rule of law and the judiciary, that's a recipe for extremism and radicalism."
Nizami's son, Nakibur Rahman Nizami, told VICE News that these executions risk aggravating the problem of Islamist militancy in Bangladesh.
"These are political trials", he said. "If people lose the faith in rule of law and the judiciary, that's a recipe for extremism and radicalism."
A spokesman for the party himself, the younger Nizami lives in the US. He warns radical forces may use the executions of opposition leaders to legitimize their violent cause and recruit disillusioned people.
"Jamaat-e-Islami and the people we represent have been denied all democratic space. We have 170 million people in Bangladesh. If only a handful of them are radicalized, that can be a big problem for the world," he said.
There are already several home-grown militant Islamist groups in Bangladesh that have committed terrorist attacks. The Islamic State may also be gaining a foothold in the South Asian country.
In an article in the propaganda magazine Dabiq titled "The Revival of Jihad in Bengal," published late last year, the group claims responsibility for the murders of two foreigners in Bangladesh last fall. In the article, the Islamic State promised it would carry out further attacks and "rise and expand in Bengal."
Over the last year, several secular and atheist bloggers and authors have been murdered by radical Islamists. The most recent murder was last month, when the editor of the country's first LGBT magazine was hacked to death in Dhaka.
Faiz, the former Amnesty International researcher, fears these groups will get a boost from the executions too.
"There are no known connections between Jamaat-e-Islami and such terrorist groups", he said. "However, there is of course a risk that disillusioned party members will be recruited by these groups, as their democratic options for political work are ruined."
The executions are but the latest in a series of blows to the political opposition in Bangladesh. The Awami League government – led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a prominent pro-independence leader in 1971 – has been using the police and paramilitary forces such as the Rapid Action Battalion to kidnap and murder opposition activists and leaders.
Local human rights organization Odhikar has documented how the police has killed close to 400 political opponents in so-called "crossfire" since Sheikh Hasina's government came to power in 2009. According to Odhikar's statistics, about half of the victims belonged to the main opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, while the rest came from a number of smaller Communist and radical Islamist parties.
This decreasing political space makes Bangladesh ripe for extremism, according to retired Brigadier General Sakhawat Hussain, an author and security analyst. "This is a much bigger danger than the executions", he said, "because many of [those sentenced to death] are aged, yesterday's leaders, who committed crimes against humanity in 1971, and are now thought to be more of a burden on the post-1971 party activists."
"If moderate Islam is not given political space in a Muslim-majority country," Hussain said, "you run the risk of a swelling strength of extremism."