Bangladesh on Wednesday decided to go ahead with the death sentence awarded to Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mojaheed and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury for crimes during the country’s war of independence in 1971.

A Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha dismissed a petition review filed by Mojaheed and Chowdhury requesting the court to overturn its earlier decisions upholding the death penalty originally imposed by the International Crimes Tribunal.

The final recourse left to the two is to now file a mercy petition with the President of Bangladesh. However, that can only be done after confessing to the crimes they were charged with during the trial.

Major political leaders

The verdict is significant given the political heft of both Chowdhury and Mojaheed. From 2001-'06, Salahuddin Chowdhury was the adviser of parliamentary affairs in the Bangladesh Nationalist Part government and is a seven-time member of parliament. Ali Mojaheed is currently the secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party and has served as the country’s Minister for Social Welfare from 2001-’06.

While the BNP is yet to respond to the verdict, the Jamaat has called for a shutdown in Dhaka on Thursday. Although the response to the strike has been lukewarm in the city, the government has, as a precautionary measure, shut down messaging services such as WhatsApp and the social media website, Facebook.

The charges for which Chowdhury was sentenced included carrying out two anti-Hindu pogroms in 1971, the murder of a social worker Natun Chandra Sinha and an Awami League leader Mozaffar Ahmed and his son.

Ali Mojaheed was a senior leader in the Al-Badr, a paramilitary organisation associated with the Pakistan Army in 1971. Mujahid was convicted for his role in the killing of intellectuals by the Pakistan Army at the fag end of the 1971 War. On December 14 that year, with the war already lost, the Pakistani Army picked up around 200 intellectuals from across Dhaka and executed them. Two days later, the Pakistani Army surrendered to India. Bangladesh commemorates December 14 as the Day of the Martyred Intellectuals.

Fight for national character

The verdict comes in a long line of events that marks a struggle to define Bangladesh’s national character. In Bangladesh, the seminal 1971 war of independence is often used a peg to launch current-day struggles over secularism. The most significant such event was the mass demonstrations in 2013, popular known as the Shahbag Protests, which demanded the death sentence for Jamaat-leader Abdul Quader Molla. While the ruling Awami League has been enthusiastic in prosecuting people involved with war crimes as part of its secular political message, right wing parties such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Part and the Jamaat-e-Islami have been bitterly opposed to this.

Bangladesh has also seen a recent series of targetted killings, with Islamists murdering secular writers and intellectuals. On Wednesday, Bangladesh police claimed that they had arrested three people connected with the murder of atheist blogger Niladri Chottapadhyay. Chottapadhyay had been hacked to death in Dhaka in August and was the fourth secularist blogger to have been killed in 2015.