Thousands of police were deployed Wednesday in Bangladesh after the main Islamist party’s leader was executed for war crimes, in a country reeling from a string of killings of secular and liberal activists.
Jamaat-e-Islami party president Motiur Rahman Nizami was hanged at Dhaka’s Central Jail late Tuesday, after the top court upheld his death sentence for the massacre of intellectuals during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.
Nizami, a 73-year-old former government minister, was the fifth and the most senior opposition figure executed since the secular government set up a controversial war crimes tribunal in 2010.
Police erected checkposts on major Dhaka roads to deter violent protests and officers and the elite Rapid Action Battalion were patrolling the capital, officials said.
“Several thousand policemen have been deployed in the capital as part of the stepped up security measures,” Dhaka police spokesman Maruf Hossain Sorder told AFP.
Security was also tight in Nizami’s northwestern ancestral district of Pabna after his body was taken under armed escort overnight for burial in the family graveyard.
“At least 16 activists of Jamaat were arrested Tuesday night as part of the security clampdown,” Pabna police inspector Ahsanul Haq told AFP.
Jamaat has called a nationwide strike for Thursday in protest over Nizami’s execution.
Executions of Jamaat officials in 2013 triggered the country’s deadliest violence in decades. Around 500 people were killed, mainly in clashes between Islamists and police.
But a fresh wave of bloodshed is considered unlikely following a major crackdown by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government that has seen tens of thousands of Jamaat supporters arrested and detained.
Mubashar Hasan, an assistant professor at Bangladesh’s University of Liberal Arts, said Tuesday’s execution sounded the death knell for the already embattled Jamaat.
“With the execution of Nizami, the Jamaat leadership who revived the fortune of the party in the post-1971 period are now almost gone,” said Hasan.
“It’s a big blow for the party.”
Hasan also warned that the execution and crackdown could further radicalise Jamaat supporters against the secular government in the Muslim-majority nation.
“The party may have grievances and these grievances may lead to radicalisation, which would be suicidal,” he said.
The execution comes as Bangladesh is suffering from a wave of gruesome murders of secular bloggers, liberal activists and religious minorities by suspected Islamists.
The Islamic State and a Bangladesh branch of Al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility, but the government blames homegrown Islamists and accuses the opposition of trying to destabilise the country.
Since last month an atheist student, two gay rights activists, a liberal professor, a Hindu tailor and a Sufi Muslim leader have been hacked to death.
– Bloody chapter –
In a statement on Wednesday, Jamaat reiterated that the charges against Nizami were false and aimed at eliminating the party’s leadership.
But secular protesters cheered the hanging, with hundreds gathered outside the jail and at a square in central Dhaka overnight to celebrate what they called “a historic moment”.
Nizami took over as Jamaat leader in 2000 and played a key role in the victory of an Islamist-allied government in the 2001 general election. He was made a cabinet minister from 2001-6.
The 1971 conflict, one of the bloodiest in world history, led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh from what was then East Pakistan.
Prosecutors said Nizami was responsible for setting up the pro-Pakistani Al-Badr militia, which killed top writers, doctors and journalists in the most gruesome chapter of the war.
The trial heard Nizami ordered the killings, designed to “intellectually cripple” the fledgling nation.
He was convicted in October 2014 by the International Crimes Tribunal, which has sentenced more than a dozen opposition leaders for war crimes.
Rights groups say the trials fell short of global standards and lack international oversight, while the government says they are needed to heal the wounds of the conflict.