DHAKA (AFP) – Former Bangladeshi politician Ghulam Azam, who died on Thursday just two weeks short of his 92nd birthday, was a convicted war criminal compared by prosecutors to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Azam, the ex-head of the Jamaat-e-Islami extremist party, was serving a 90-year jail term for masterminding widespread atrocities during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan when he died of a heart attack.
His party, Bangladesh’s largest extremist grouping and a key opposition, insisted until the end that the five charges – including murder and conspiracy – were false and “politically motivated”.
Azam started out as a political science professor and author of over 100 books, experimenting with left-wing politics before joining Jamaat in the 1950s.
He led the party when Bangladesh – known as East Pakistan after the partition of British India in 1947 – went to war, in which three million people would die, against Pakistan.
With Azam at the helm, Jamaat opposed Bangladesh’s secession from what was then West Pakistan.
A special court set up by the secular government concluded in July last year that Azam had orchestrated the establishment of several pro-Pakistani militias which massacred intellectuals at the end of the nine-month conflict.
When India intervened in the war it became clear Pakistan would lose and Azam “masterminded” the killing of dozens of professors, playwrights, doctors and journalists, the court said.
Many of whose bodies were found a few days after the war ended in a marsh outside the capital, their hands tied behind their backs and blindfolded as if they had been executed.
“The aim was to cripple the country intellectually. Without his consent it could not have happened,” state prosecutor Sultan Mahmud said on the day of Azam’s conviction.
“His role in the 1971 war was like Hitler’s in the Second World War,” Mahmud added.
After the war, Azam fled to Pakistan where he allegedly formed the East Pakistan Restoration Committee, portraying the liberation war as a conspiracy by India.
He left Pakistan for London in 1973 where he edited a Bengali newspaper and continued to campaign against recognising Bangladesh’s independence.
After independence, Bangladesh cancelled Azam’s citizenship and banned Jamaat and other faith-based parties. Thousands were arrested for collaborating with Pakistan.
But another deadly turn in Bangladesh’s volatile politics brought Azam back to Dhaka on a Pakistani passport in 1978, three years after the nation’s founding leader Sheikh Mujib was assassinated.