Dhaka, May 13 (bdnews24.com) — Jamaat guru Ghulam Azam admitted being on a list of collaborators in 1973 when he was asked to plead 'guilty or not guilty' after the first war crimes tribunal read him his charges.
Jamaat-e-Islami's former chief Ghulam Azam was indicted on Sunday for incitement, conspiracy, planning, abetment and failure to prevent crimes against humanity during the Bangladesh's War of Independence in 1971.
When asked to plead, the former Jamaat chief said there were numerous charges mentioned. "It is not possible to respond to all of them in a short time. But I do not consider myself guilty of the charges."
A Political Science graduate of Dhaka University and also a former leader of the university's central students union, Azam sought the tribunal's permission to speak a few words.
Chairman of the three-judge tribunal, Justice Mohammad Nizamul Huq told him he could say a few words. "We will hear you but none of that will be recorded other than your plea."
Azam pointed out to the tribunal that the list of war criminals of 1973 did not have his name on it.
"I was, however, on the list of collaborators," he said. "But having forgiven the principal offenders, the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had decided to declare a general amnesty. Hence I have been already forgiven."
Referring to the ruling party, the former teacher of Rangpur's Carmichael College said that Awami League had never referred to the Jamaat-e-Islami members as war criminals before 2001. "They started calling us war criminals after the 2001 elections."
The 89-year-old Jamaat leader said although BNP, currently the main opposition party, and Awami League had secured almost the same number of votes, the number of seats the former had won in the 300-seat parliament was huge. BNP had won almost 200 while the Awami League bagged just below a fifth of the seats.
Azam explained that this was only because the BNP-led coalition had the edge because of the parties and that was key to winning the elections.
Having realised that the BNP-Jamaat alliance must be broken, "the Awami League is after Jamaat-e-Islami to remove it from politics."
"My trial is also part of that plan and born out of nothing but political expediency," said the 89-year old, who has been in custody since Jan 11 in the prison cell of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.
The Jamaat guru's statements then took a more political turn targeting the heart of Awami League, its undisputed leader and Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujib.
Azam said that he did not believe Sheikh Mujib ever wanted to break up Pakistan. "He rather wanted to become the prime minister and he always contended that the majority must prevail."
Still dwelling upon the founding president of Bagladesh, Azam said, Mujib had always refuted any allegations that he wanted to break up Pakistan. "He even said referring to me, 'Whatever people like Ghulam Azam say is not true; I would never want to break up Pakistan'," he said.
"In fact if he had indeed declared independence, as is claimed, then he would not have surrendered on the night of Mar 25." Ghulam Azam continued, "By early March, he had established complete control over East Pakistan and could have easily made the declaration if he wanted, even the government officials would do his bidding."
Although prosecutor Zead-Al-Malum took the podium to object to Ghulam Azam's remarks, he was dismissed by Justice Huq even before he could begin.
The tribunal chair told the Jamaat guru that he should perhaps not say too much since this might compromise his defence. "We cannot allow you continue speaking since that would create a precedent that others will refer to. We also have to keep a lot of things in mind."
Tribunal member judge A K M Zaheer Ahmed said, "There is nothing to explain to you since you a very learned man yourself and understand quite well what is going on."
Still the judge explained that the tribunal was not passing any judgement at all. "We are not saying you are guilty or the opposite. These are merely the charges. You will have the opportunity to say what you like once you are called to take the stand after witness depositions are over."
Advising that he should not say too much at this point of the trial, Justice Huq told Azam, "You have one of the best lawyers of the country. Let your defence team do their job."
Justice Anwarul Haque, another tribunal member, explained that the law did not really allow the accused to state anything other than the plea.
Justice Huq then requested Ghulam Azam to take his seat and continued with the rest of the formalities of the indictment order.
On Dec 12, 2011, the prosecution brought a 52-point charter of charges against Azam and appealed for his arrest. Later, following the tribunal order, charges were re-arranged and presented to the tribunal on Jan 5.
He was produced before the tribunal on Jan 11 and sent to jail the same day. Since that evening, Ghulam Azam has been kept in the prison cell of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for better treatment considering his delicate health.
The prosecution's numerous charges against him mainly consist of incitement, conspiracy, complicity and command responsibility for crimes against humanity.
A former chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, arguably the largest Islamist organisation in the subcontinent, Azam is allegedly among the key people who pioneered anti-liberation efforts in 1971 colluding with the Pakistani military junta of that time.
He is widely perceived to have been among core group of right-wing supporters of the Pakistani Army, who came out strongly in support of a united Pakistan.
Ghulam Azam, then chief of Jamaat, was instrumental in setting up the infamous Peace Committee at the national level. The Razakars, an auxiliary force set up mainly to actively thwart the liberation forces, are said to have been mobilised through the Peace Committees across Bangladesh.
Among the most notorious vigilante militia are the Al Badr, whose membership is said to have been mainly dominated by the Jamaat's student wing called the Islami Chhatra Sangha at that time.
The Al Badr is alleged to have spearheaded execution of the intellectual elites of Bangladesh just days before the victory on Dec 16, 1971.
Azam also spoke in favour of Pakistan to the Middle Eastern countries during the war, according to the prosecution.
He stayed in London for seven years after 1971 and returned to Bangladesh in 1978 during BNP founder Ziaur Rahman's rule. Having led Jamaat for long, Azam retired from active politics in 1999.
His party remains a key ally of the main opposition BNP. Two other Jamaat leaders, also behind bars for war crimes charges, have even served as ministers during the BNP's last tenure in government between 2001 and 2006, when Azam's party was part of the ruling coalition.