I first heard the name of Motiur Rahman Nizami while making a film in 1994 concerned with war crimes during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence.
The film, The War Crimes File, broadcast a year later on UK’s Channel Four Television, investigated the alleged crimes committed by three British men, who during the nine month long war were involved with the Jamaat-e-Islami or its student wing, Islami Chaatra Sangha.
The focus of the documentary was Chowdhury Mueenuddin, a Jamaat student leader in 1971 who was alleged to have been involved in rounding up and killing intellectuals in Dhaka, just days before the surrender of the Pakistan army.
During the making of the film, there was one man whose presence loomed over many of the interviews. This was Nizami, in 1971 the leader of the Jamaat student wing, said to have been the head of the Al Badr militia that operated alongside the Pakistan military, and alleged to have committed many atrocities.
It was widely assumed that Nizami was the man who would have directed people like Mueenuddin to pick up and kill the 17 secular intellectuals in Dhaka between December 11 and 14 , 1971.
When I moved to Dhaka ten years later, Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was the prime minister, and her government comprised an alliance of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The Jamaat had two ministers in the government. Nizami, by then the Ameer of the Jamaat, was one of them. This was the Islamist party’s high point in Bangladesh politics.
In the pre-independence 1970 Pakistan elections, the Jamaat had received only a small number of votes and won only one seat in East Pakistan – 30 years later, it had received 4.3% of the vote and had 17 members of Parliament.
This was an astonishing turnaround in the Jamaat’s fortunes.
How had a party, with so little support in 1970, which had not only supported the Pakistan military effort during the nine month war of independence in 1971 but had also allegedly committed atrocities, somehow managed by 2001 to become such a dominant force in an independent Bangladesh which it had earlier violently opposed?
Nizami was of course the symbol of this turnaround. From alleged Al Badr leader, he had become minister of agriculture and then of industries.
The answer to the question of how this all came about primarily lies in the 15 year period after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in which a succession of leaders – in particular Ziaur Rahman, who went on to establish the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – facilitated the return of the Jamaat-e-Islami into Bangladesh politics and life. A story for another day.
However, it was not long before a further remarkable turnaround was to take place in Bangladesh politics.
Six and a half years after the overwhelming victory of the Awami League in the 2009 elections not only has Nizami now been executed for crimes committed during the 1971 war – including in particular for his alleged role in the killings of intellectuals – but three other Jamaat Leaders, including the man who only a few years earlier along with Nizami, was minister under the BNP government, have been hanged in the last couple of years.
In addition, the High Court has ruled that the Jamaat cannot take part in elections and the government seems on the verge of banning the party altogether.
What turned these men from prominent politicians to condemned war criminals was the International Crimes Tribunal, established in 2010 – whose process has been widely criticised by just about all the international human rights organisations, transitional justice organisations and independent human rights lawyers that have cared to take a look.
The most apparent example of this is the systematic restriction by the courts in the number of witnesses the accused are allowed to summon to court. So, with Nizami for example, the Tribunal only allowed his lawyers to call 4 witnesses to defend a total of 16 charges all of which could have resulted in a death penalty.
In Bangladesh, however, these criticisms fall on deaf ears. They are drowned out by government denials and by war crimes accountability campaigners (and their supportive media) who brook no criticism of the trials, condemning any person who raises concerns as being “pro-Jamaat” or “pro-war criminal”.
Some activists refused to accept the validity of any of the criticisms, others assumed they were politically motivated, while still others justified their denial by pointing to the wider context – that these men had “got away” with their crimes for decades, that this was the only chance that they would be held to account, and so nothing should be done that could undermine the process.
The legitimate criticisms of the trial itself should not though be confused with the wider argument put forward by the Jamaat that the arrest and prosecution of the party leaders was political targeting.
There is no doubt that the Jamaat and its student wing collaborated with the Pakistan military during the 1971 war, that atrocities were committed by the Pakistan military, and there were long standing allegations against many of the Jamaat leaders of complicity in these crimes.
Nizami and others justly deserved to have been put on trial. But the issue is not that these men were put on trial, but the manner of the trial process itself.
Yet, in Bangladesh, right now, the overall mood is one of satisfaction. They are looking at the trial not through the prism of fair trial standards but one of moral justice.
And through that prism, people mostly feel that the conviction and execution of the man, who as head of the student wing of the Jamaat supported the Pakistan military during the 1971 war, was right and fair.
Author: David Bergman, taken from News Bangladesh