Bangladesh indicts Islamic leaders for war crimes

The chief of Bangladesh's largest Islamic party and one of his deputies were indicted Monday for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 independence war against Pakistan.

A special tribunal set up by the government to deal with charges of crimes against humanity indicted Matiur Rahman Nizami, the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, on 16 charges, including genocide and murder. Another tribunal indicted Abdul Quader Molla, a deputy of Nizami, for his alleged involvement in crimes against humanity.

Nizami's trial will begin July 1, while Molla's starts June 20. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

Bangladesh — with help from India — won independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-month war. Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed some 3 million people, raped about 200,000 women and forced millions to flee their homes during the war.

Jamaat-e-Islami openly campaigned against breaking away from Pakistan during the war, and several party leaders now stand accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army in committing atrocities.

Nizami and Molla, who have been in jail since last year, are among five top Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and one former party chief accused of crimes against humanity. The former party chief, Ghulam Azam, also is in jail awaiting his trial, which begins June 5.

Two other people, including a current member of Parliament, face similar charges.

A three-judge panel headed by Justice Nizamul Huq indicted Nizami after prosecutors said he was responsible for the deaths of many academics, journalists and doctors just two days before Pakistan's army surrendered on Dec. 16, 1971.

Nizami has been accused of masterminding the abductions and systematic killings of people sensing an imminent defeat. At the time of the war, Nizami was president of Islami Chhatra Sangha, then the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. He also served as a Cabinet minister from 2001 to 2006 under then-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who now heads the main opposition party.

Separately, another tribunal indicted Molla, one of the assistant secretaries general of the party, on six charges, including genocide and conspiracy. He was widely believed to be behind the killings of many villagers near the capital, Dhaka, in 1971.

Jamaat-e-Islami — a key partner in Zia's former government and now the chief ally of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party — says the charges are politically motivated. Authorities deny the claim.

Zia, the longtime political rival of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has called the tribunal a farce. Hasina, in turn, has urged Zia to stop backing those who she says stood against the nation's quest for independence and allegedly aided Pakistan's army in committing serious crimes.

International human rights groups have called on the government to ensure that the tribunal is free and impartial.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has called for changes to the tribunal, including allowing the accused to question its impartiality, which current law prohibits.