DHAKA: Bangladesh on Sunday hanged two top opposition leaders for war crimes during the independence war and strengthened security nation-wide over fears the executions could spark fresh unrest.
Thousands of extra police and border guards were deployed in Dhaka and other major cities and towns on the eve of a general strike on Monday called to protest against the executions.
Supporters of the ruling Awami League meanwhile greeted the executions of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury by holding street parties and doling out sweets to children.
A total of 18 people have been convicted but only two had been sent to the gallows before Mujahid and Chowdhury were hanged at Dhaka’s Central Prison shortly before 1:00am.
While the other three were members of the largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, Chowdhury was a senior figure in the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Jamaat, banned from contesting the 2014 general election, said the executions were part of a strategy “aimed at eliminating” its leadership.
The BNP also accused Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of presiding over a politically-motivated killing, which was carried out only hours after BNP leader Khaleda Zia returned from a lengthy stay in London.
Some of the tightest security measures were in force in the home towns of the two executed men, whose funerals were held on Sunday morning.
“We’ve stepped up security across the country to prevent any violence, including on the roads along which the bodies were taken,” police spokesman Munstashirul Islam told AFP.
A television journalist suffered minor injuries after being shot in the town of Raojan hours after Chowdhury’s burial there, private television Channel 24 said. A local police chief told AFP officers were checking if the incident was connected to the executions.
Chowdhury, 66, was convicted of atrocities including genocide during the 1971 war. He served six terms as a member of parliament and was one of Zia’s top aides.
The 67-year-old Mujahid, Jamaat’s official number two, was sentenced for war crimes such as the killing of top intellectuals.
Although international rights groups have criticised the trials as unfair, the government says they are vital for Bangladesh to confront its traumatic birth.
Despite having long been accused of leading massacres of pro-independence figures and minorities, both Chowdhury and Mujahid held cabinet posts a little over a decade ago when the BNP was in power.
Relatives of war victims celebrated the hangings.
“I’ve waited for this day for a long 44 years,” said Shawan Mahmud, daughter of top musician Altaf Mahmud, who was killed by the notorious Al Badr militia that Mujahid was convicted of leading.
But both men’s families said they maintained their innocence to the end, denying they sought clemency in what would have amounted to an admission of guilt.
“He said they are killing him because they could not beat him in elections,” Chowdhury’s son Humam Qauder Chowdhury told AFP after a final meeting with his father.
Both the BNP and Jamaat point out that Hasina is trying to neuter her opponents, having won re-election two years ago in a controversial contest boycotted by rivals.
Thousands of BNP supporters have been arrested in recent months, further hampering its efforts to regain a footing in upcoming municipal elections.
Authorities say those arrested have either carried out or plotted firebombings and other attacks.
The political violence has worsened tensions in the mainly Muslim country, which is also reeling from a string of killings of secular bloggers and the recent murder of two foreigners.
Hasina says three million people were killed in the `independence’ conflict. Researchers put the toll much lower.