A Dhaka court on Wednesday found guilty and sentenced to death four suspected members of the militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh for attacking a prominent secular Bengali writer with machetes 18 years ago.
In a bizarre case, the defendants were tried for murder despite the writer, Humayun Azad, dying of heart failure in Germany in August 2004, six months after extremists attacked him at a trade fair in the delivers to Dhaka.
This incident foreshadowed the murder of a secular Bangladeshi-American blogger, Avijit Roy, at the same book festival in February 2015 – a year when Muslim fanatics in the South Asian nation terrorized secular Bengali writers by targeting them in a series of machete murders.
Two defendants, Mohammad Mizanur Rahman Minhaz and Anwarul Alam, were in court to learn they would be sent to the gallows via death row, while two others, Nur Mohammad Shamim and Salehin Sani, fled. A fifth suspect, Hafez Mahmud, died in a shootout with police, officials said.
“The prosecution was able to prove beyond doubt the charges against the defendant. The most heinous crime committed by the accused is unforgivable. All are condemned to death because they deserve no pity,” Dhaka Metropolitan Judge Al-Mamun said at the end of the trial. In addition to the sentence, he fined each defendant 50,000 taka (US$580).
The prosecutor welcomed the decision.
“The convicts are leaders at different levels of the JMB,” Abdullah Abu told BenarNews.
“We are satisfied because the killers have been sentenced to death,” the prosecutor said while noting that it took many years for the court to rule.
On February 27, 2004, militants attacked Azad, one of the most famous feminist, humanist and atheist writers in the history of Bangladesh, on the campus of the University of Dhaka where he was teaching Bengali literature. He was returning home from the annual Amar Ekushey book fair, which lasted a month.
On August 12, 2004, he was found dead in Germany, where he had traveled on a scholarship. An attempted murder case filed by his brother, Manzur Kabir, after the Dhaka bombing, was upgraded to a murder case after his death.
“This verdict is unexpected. The judge pronounced it without carefully considering our arguments,” defense attorney Faruq Ahmed told BenarNews. “He died six months after the attack.”
The defense team pointed to German media reports that an autopsy on Azad had found a natural cause of death.
“The medical examination found nothing abnormal. The doctor found signs of death from cardiac arrest,” the Deutsche Welle news agency said in a report published August 19, 2004, quoting an official of the German police.
The prosecutor disputed the defense argument.
“He died because of the attack. This was proven in court. The verdict is based on the testimonies of 41 witnesses,” Abdullah said.
Survivors jump the court
None of Azad’s survivors were present in court for the verdict. Her brother, Manzur Kabir, expressed frustration with the investigation.
“When they (investigators) excluded Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi from the indictment, we lost interest. Whatever may be in the verdict, we are not so interested in that,” he told BenarNews – adding that Azad had identified him as one of the attackers.
“He (Sayeedi) could have proven not guilty in court, but the police excluded him from the charges. This is our main grievance,” Kabir said.
Sayeedi, who was sentenced to death in 2013 for crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, condemned Azad for his actions against fundamentalism.
“The other murders of freethinkers could have been avoided if the verdict had been delivered sooner,” he said, referring to Roy who was hacked to death a day before the 11th anniversary of the attack. d’Azad while attending the same book fair, and other writers and publishers.
Local authorities have accused Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an al-Qaeda-aligned Bangladeshi militant group, of a string of murders of secular writers in 2015 and 2016, including Roy.
A poet and publisher said the verdict did not make Bangladesh safer for him and others involved in secular communications.
“The fanatics involved in these ideological murders will never think of how many people like them have been hanged. If they intend to kill me, they will kill me when the time is right,” Rabin Ahsan told BenarNews.
He said the delay in reaching a verdict allowed extremism to spread.
“Day by day, we are getting worse. Humayun Azad said everything will be in the wrong hands,” said Rabin, owner of Shravan Publications. “We are witnessing a more precarious position than he feared.”