DHAKA – A media tycoon who is a key figure in Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party was sentenced to death Sunday for war crimes, just days after its leader was ordered to hang for similar offences.
A war crimes court found wealthy businessman Mir Quasem Ali, an official of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, guilty of 10 charges including murder and abduction during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.
Ali, 63, stood up and loudly protested the verdict as the head judge announced the sentence in a packed courtroom.
“It’s a motivated judgement,” he said, accusing the court of acting on instructions from the secular government. Ali, who owns a television station and newspaper aligned with Jamaat, was convicted of running a torture cell of a pro-Pakistani militia that carried out killings – including that of a young independence fighter.
“The country and the affected people have finally got justice. Mir Quasem Ali has been sentenced to death for the murder of a teenage freedom fighter, Jashim,” prosecutor Ziad Al Malum told reporters.
“The young boy was abducted and his body was thrown in the Karnaphuli River,” he said.
Jamaat’s top leader Motiur Rahman Nizami was on Wednesday sentenced to death for heading a militia in 1971, a decision that sparked protests by supporters. Jamaat called a nationwide strike following Nizami’s verdict. The stoppage was still in effect Sunday, with many schools and businesses closed and traffic thin. The party announced another strike for Thursday in protest at Ali’s death sentence.
Similar judgements against other Jamaat officials last year plunged the country into one of its worst crises. Tens of thousands of Jaamat activists clashed with police in various protests that left some 500 people dead.
Ali, also a shipping and real estate tycoon, became the eighth Islamist sentenced to death by the controversial war crimes court, set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in 2010.
Fresh protests are expected after the Supreme Court announced Sunday it would deliver judgement on Monday on an appeal by Jamaat’s assistant secretary general, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, against his death sentence.
Ali, a former leader of Jamaat’s powerful student wing, helped revive the party by setting up charities, businesses and trusts linked to it after it was allowed to operate in the late 1970s. Ali, who was arrested in 2012 on 14 war crimes charges, heads the Diganta Media Corporation which owns a pro-Jamaat daily and a television station.
The government shut down the television station last year for inciting religious tension.
Defence lawyer Tanvir Ahmed Al-Amin described the charges against Ali as “baseless and false” and said they would appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court. “We’ve not got justice, despite proving that he was not at the crime scenes during the war,” the lawyer said.
Jamaat and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party have accused the government of using the court to target their leaders through phoney charges.
Rights groups have said the trials fall short of international standards and lack any foreign oversight. Hasina’s government maintains the hearings are needed to heal the wounds of the conflict, which it says left three million people dead. Independent researchers estimate that between 300,000 and 500,000 people died in the 1971 war.