A Bangladesh tribunal today deferred the verdict on the chief of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e- Islami, accused of war crimes during the country's liberation war against Pakistan in 1971, at the last minute after authorities said he was sick and could not be moved from jail.
Motiur Rahman Nizami, 69, is charged with 16 counts of war crimes including murder, rape, looting, abatement and the massacre of Bengali intellectuals during the liberation war and could face the death penalty. "Reviewing all aspects, we have come to the conclusion that it will not be logical to deliver the verdict today... the judgment is kept on CAV (Curia Advisari Vult or reserving of judgement)," said Justice M Enayetur Rahim, chairman of the three-member panel of Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal. The special court was set to pronounce the judgment today.
Legal experts said the legal term, CAV, meant that the judges would like to take time to deliver the verdict.
Ahead of the deferring of the judgement, the tribunal sought opinions of both the prosecution and defence lawyers, referring a letter to them from the prison authorities informing the court about Nizami's illness. Both the sides said under the law, the accused, if detained in jail, must appear before the court when the verdict is delivered, unless one deliberately refuses to appear, suffers from prolonged illness or is set free on bail. "His (Nizami) blood pressure rose and he was given medication," senior Jail Superintendent Farman Ali told reporters. They are planning to send him to a specialised state-run facility to be treated for his sickness, he said.
The charges against Nizami include the murder of 70 people and torching of 72 houses in December, 1971, in Pabna's Bera Upazila, murdering 450 people in Demra and Baushia villages and killing many more in front of a Hindu temple in Santhiya Upazila.
About three million people were killed by the Pakistani army and their Bengali-speaking collaborators during the liberation war, according to official estimates. Nizami, the then head of the East-Pakistan unit of Jamaat's student affiliate -- Islami Chhatra Shangha -- is one of the last high-profile accused in the case. Almost the entire leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami stands accused of war crimes.
Eight people have been so far handed down death sentences and two others were sentenced to life term since the trial of war crimes began in 2011 by two tribunals set up by the Awami League government.
Earlier, the authorities deployed paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and armed police to keep a vigil in the capital and other major cities fearing a possible backlash after the verdict was given.
Police and RAB specially set up four layers of security around the tribunal building near the Supreme Court Complex as hundreds of activists of the Ganojagaran Mancha, a forum of youngsters spearheading the campaign for maximum punishment for war criminals, gathered outside the premises. A faction of the Mancha alleged a "conspiracy" in the deferring of the verdict.
Imran H Sarkar, a spokesman of the Mancha, said the judgement was postponed due to a "cunning move". "This is a conspiracy. We will fight it...No war crimes verdicts have been announced in the last six months," Sarkar said. The 1971 freedom fighters had also gathered outside the building and were expecting to celebrate in case of a favourable verdict. The trial against Nizami began on May 28, 2012, two years after his arrest for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.
The judgement was expected to end a major phase of the trial of crimes against humanity during the 1971 liberation war as Nizami is the last high-profile accused to be tried. The tribunal wrapped up the trial hearing seven months ago.
Nizami's case took the longest time to be disposed since the launch of the war crimes trials, lawyers said. One of the major charges against him is the systematic elimination of the leading intelligentsia just two days ahead of the Bangladesh's December 16, 1971 victory. Only one among those sentenced in the war crimes cases, Jamaat's joint secretary general Abdul Quader Mollah, has so far been executed.
Of the 10 convicted in the cases, eight are Jamaat stalwarts and the other two are leaders of its crucial ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia.
Law Minister Anisul Huq yesterday told Parliament that the tribunals were still hearing 10 cases, even as verdicts were awaited in four cases, including that of Nizami.
According to reports, of the accused who are still being tried, two are Jamaat leaders, two belong to BNP, one is a local leader of the ruling Awami League and one is a former minister of ex-military dictator HM Ershad's regime.
During his indictment, Nizami had pleaded "not guilty" and said the then Pakistan Peoples Party leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was entirely responsible for the genocide in 1971.
Nizami was a minister in the BNP-led four-party alliance government from 2001-2006.
A special tribunal has already sentenced Nizami and 13 others, including a top leader of India's separatist outfit ULFA, to death in the 2004 Chittagong arms cases. The tribunal found him guilty of complicity in trying to smuggle in a huge quantity of weapons through the port city while he was Industry Minister in the BNP-led government of Khaleda Zia.