DHAKA: As a cabinet minister, Motiur Rahman Nizami used to be chauffeured around Bangladesh with the green and red national flag fluttering proudly from the bonnet of his official limousine.
But according to witnesses at his war crimes trial, the future leader of Bangladesh’s main Islamist party spent his student days running a killing machine which murdered anyone who agitated for independence.
“When he became a cabinet minister, it was one of the most shameful moments in our history,” Imran Sarker, one of Bangladesh’s most widely-read secular bloggers, said after Nizami’s execution Tuesday.
“He used to fly the flag and yet he and his party not only opposed Bangladesh’s independence but he was the chief orchestrator of the murders of the country’s finest intellectuals.”
Nizami, the top leader of Jamaat-e-Islami until his hanging, never denied his opposition to the former East Pakistan’s breakaway from the regime in Islamabad which triggered a nine-month war of secession in 1971.
But during his trial in Dhaka in 2014, Nizami insisted his opposition was only ideological in his role as head of Jamaat’s now defunct student wing and he played no part in any mass murders.
The prosecution painted a different picture of a bloodthirsty zealot who turned the youth wing into a de facto death squad which assassinated professors, writers and journalists.
“When it was clear that Pakistan was losing the war, as the chief commander of Al Badr he ordered a hit-list based on which top intellectuals were abducted and killed,” prosecutor Mohammad Ali told Agence France-Presse.
The aim was to render the fledgling nation “intellectually crippled”, he added.
Like many prominent figures allied to the regime in Islamabad, Nizami kept a low-profile in the immediate post-war period, fearing revenge.
But after the assassination of independence hero Sheikh Mujib — the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — Jamaat was taken off the banned list in 1979 and Nizami emerged as one of its key lieutenants.
He played a central role in its rebranding as a democratic party which eschewed violence and a formidable new student wing was created on his watch.
After years as the party’s second-in-command, he took the helm in 2000 and made Jamaat a close partner of the center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The alliance secured a landslide election victory the following year, with BNP leader Khaleda Zia replacing her arch rival Hasina as premier.
It was the first time Jamaat had been given a role in governing a nation which it had tried to smother at birth. Nizami served both as industry minister and agriculture minister from 2001-06.
But the seeds of his downfall were sown in 2004 when police accidentally seized a weapons consignment being smuggled into the country that was destined for a rebel outfit in neighboring India’s northeast.
When Hasina was voted back to power in 2009, her administration filed charges against Nizami for abetting smuggling on the grounds that the weapons were being unloaded at a jetty run by his ministry.
He was subsequently sentenced to death in a verdict supporters said was a sop to Bangladesh’s powerful neighbor which is close to Hasina’s Awami League party.
While on death row in the smuggling case, Nizami became one of around a dozen senior figures from Jamaat and BNP to be charged over their role in the 1971 conflict which was one of the bloodiest in the post-colonial era.
Jamaat said the prosecutions were part of a government witch-hunt aimed at neutering the opposition.
With most of its leaders either having been executed, jailed or on the run, Jamaat — which is now banned from standing in elections — has struggled to bring supporters onto the streets in the last three years.
Rights groups criticized the trials for lacking international oversight but the government insists they were fair and necessary to bring justice to the families of people killed during the war.
According to Hasina’s government, three million people died in the conflict although independent monitors say the real figure was far lower. AFP