U.S. Cleric Accused of Being War Criminal in Bangladesh
In the United States, Ashrafuzzaman Khan ostensibly is a respected Muslim cleric, president of the Imams of America association and past secretary general of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
In Bangladesh, a court is hearing evidence alleging that Khan is a war criminal, someone who helped draft a list of intellectuals who would later be kidnapped and killed in the final days of the 1971 war of liberation against Pakistan.
Khan, 65, is being tried in absentia. Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal ruled last month that “there are sufficient and substantial materials” to warrant proceeding to trial against him on 11 war crimes counts.
He remains on the executive board of ICNA’s New York chapter and has not commented publicly on the allegations. He is being tried along with Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, a prominent imam in the United Kingdom who helped create the Muslim Council of Britain.
The two are accused of leading a killing squad called Al-Badar, which was an offshoot of the Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami. The Islamists supported Pakistan during the war. As many as three million people died in the battle for independence, and millions more sought refuge in neighboring India. In the war’s final days in December 1971, dozens of intellectuals – journalists, doctors, professors, and others – were systematically rounded up. They were taken from their homes at gunpoint and later found in a mass grave. In some cases, the charging papers say, the bodies were never recovered.
“Al-Badar acted as ‘killing squad’, in furtherance of plan and policy of Pakistani occupation army,” the Tribunal’s prosecution wrote. Khan was the “‘chief executor’ of Al-Badar to the accomplishment of the barbaric crimes, in furtherance of common plan and design, with intent to paralyze the Bengali nation.”
Britain’s Channel 4 aired a documentary on Bangladesh’s war of independence and the resulting atrocities, which can be seen here.
Khan allegedly was on a central committee for the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, called Islami Chatra Sangha. The names of many victims were found in a diary found in Khan’s home after he fled the country.
Khan’s court-appointed attorney denies the charges, saying the Pakistani army was responsible for the killings and that Khan was never in Al-Badar.
So far, three witnesses have placed Khan at the scene of abductions:
1. Masuda Banu Ratna – whose uncle Giasuddin Ahmed was taken at gunpoint from Dhaka University – said she knew Khan and Mueen-Uddin from student political activities and recognized them when they came for her uncle. His body was found three weeks later, dumped in a mass grave.
2. Enamul Huq Khan testified that his father, a history professor, was taken from their home by a handful of men at gunpoint. He said he later was told by a man who was driving the Al-Badar squad around that Khan pulled the trigger and killed his father. He didn’t know Khan at the time, but said he recognized him the following year when a newspaper published pictures of Khan and Mueen-Uddin with a caption “help to capture the killers.”
3. The son of slain journalist Selina Parvin said Mueen-Uddin and Khan were among those who took her away from their home on December 13, 1971.
The Tribunal has faced some criticism, and its rulings sparked violent protests led by Jamaat-e-Islami. More than 80 people died after the Tribunal sentenced Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi to death in March.
Talk of Khan being charged has circulated for years. A report also indicated that the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations was investigating Khan to determine if he failed to mention his activities when he applied for U.S. residency and naturalization.
ICNA, the organization Khan led, was founded by South Asian Muslims. Its constitution draws heavily from the Jamaat-e-Islami and its curriculum emphasizes writings by Jamaat founder Syed Abul Ala Maududi. Maududi advocated that Muslims “must strive to change the wrong basis of government, and seize all powers to rule and make laws from those who do not fear God.”
Khan offered a similar sentiment in welcoming people to ICNA’s 1999 convention. Muslims, he wrote in the convention program, “have a culture and civilization which once ruled the world and still has the viability to rule the world again.”
Khan has not publicly addressed the charges against him and ICNA has not commented since last month’s charges were accepted. In a March statement, it dismissed the tribunal’s existence as a purely political effort “to silence opposition figures” and said its actions amount to human rights violations. Mueen-Uddin has posted a statement denying all the charges against him and ridiculing the Tribunal.
It is unclear what happens if Khan is convicted. The United States has no extradition treaty with Bangladesh, and U.S. Ambassador for Global Justice Stephen J. Rapp has been among those taking issue with some of the Tribunal’s standards. If the United States is satisfied with the evidence, or even if it can be proven that Khan was a part of Al-Badar and failed to disclose that fact on immigration papers, this may be just beginning.