A politically-charged legal proceeding on the other side of the globe has stirred 40-year-old memories and modern-day animosities in New York’s Bangladesh community.
At the center of the legal firestorm is Ashrafuzzaman Khan, a prominent imam and president of the New York branch of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), in Jamaica, Queens. In October, prosecutors for the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) announced plans to charge Khan in the abductions and deaths of 18 people during the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to Bangladesh’s independence.
Tribunal investigators say that Khan, then 23, was a co-leader of a student militia group, Al-Badr, that in 1971 collaborated with Pakistan’s military in opposing independence for Bangladesh. In a report sent to the tribunal’s prosecutors in October, the investigators allege that Khan took part in the so-called “intellectual killings” – the kidnapping and murder of pro-independence professors, journalists and physicians in the war’s final days. The goal, according to investigators, was to eliminate elite leaders who might have played key roles in the new state. Family members of some of those victims have said they were abducted from their homes or workplaces by groups of armed, masked men, then allegedly tortured and killed at an execution site uncovered after Bangladesh won independence on December 16, 1971.
In a telephone interview, Saiful Islam, one of the prosecutors for the tribunal, who is directly involved with the charges in Khan’s case, said the killings were part of “a master plan,” developed by the Pakistani military, “to kill a specific group of unarmed civilian Bengalis. Ashrafuzzaman carried out a part of this master plan.”
Asked about the charges in a brief telephone interview, Khan, who has lived in the U.S. for about 30 years and is now an American citizen, said, “I don’t know what is happening in Bangladesh. I am not a citizen of Bangladesh.” He declined further comment.
Naeem Baig, a spokesperson for ICNA, which describes itself as an educational and social services organization for American Muslims, said the charges would not affect Khan’s position with the group. “Mr. Khan was elected by ICNA’s local members and he has their support,” said Baig, who noted that the war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh has been criticized widely by human rights groups and others.
In its most recent World Report, Human Rights Watch said that the tribunal’s definitions of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide “fell short of international standards,” as did its standards for ensuring due process of those accused. To date, investigators have brought formal charges against nine people, and are preparing to bring charges against four more, including Khan. Advocate Islam said that the court is “scrutinizing” the investigative report on Khan. The tribunal expects to file formal charges against Khan after December this year.
Others have criticized the tribunal for pursuing only Bangladeshis who opposed independence in 1971, while ignoring possible crimes by pro-independence forces and the Pakistani soldiers who fought against them. Most of the men currently on trial are members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which opposes Bangladesh’s current ruling party, the Awami League.
“The [Awami League] government has put behind bars political rivals through the tribunal,” said Baig.
But the controversies surrounding the tribunal do not deter some who have waited 40 years to see justice done for victims of the civil war.
“He [Khan] continues to be active here, preaching, brainwashing people, year after year,” said Saleem Noor of Queens, whose father was abducted and killed during the war. “The Nazi war criminals were pursued and brought to justice. Why can’t the same be done to perpetrators of war crimes in Bangladesh?”
“We feel people got away with murder and nothing has been done about it,” said Ikramuddin Ahmed, a Bangladeshi immigrant who now lives in Wichita, Kansas. The report accusing Khan of war crimes in 1971 charges him with the abduction and killing of Ahmed’s uncle, Ghiasuddin Ahmed, a history professor at Dhaka University in the Bangladeshi capital.
According to Ahmed, a group of masked men abducted his uncle from a student dormitory at the university on the night of December 14, 1971. He was one of many kidnapped on the same day, said Ahmed. Their bodies were discovered later in a mass grave.
The allegations about Khan’s involvement in these killings have circulated publicly since at least 1994, when Bangladeshi war crimes activist Shahriar Kabir wrote about them in Probashi, a New York-based Bengali newspaper that later folded. In that article, Khan denied the charges.
The deep divisions over the tribunal and the specific charges against Khan reflect the volatile politics within Bangladesh itself, and the lingering bitterness over a bloody war that, by some estimates, claimed as many as three million lives. Fighting began in March 1971, when Pakistani forces moved into East Pakistan to crush Bengali demands for a sovereign nation. The war ended nine months later, after India joined forces with the Bangladeshi independence movement to defeat Pakistan’s army.
When Bangladesh won independence, many who had opposed it fled the new country. Tribunal investigators say that Khan was one of those who fled, eventually finding his way to the U.S., where he has reportedly lived since the early 80s, according to friends and associates of Khan.
Khan has been at the center of New York’s Islamic life for many years. He offers family counseling services through ICNA, officiates at Muslim weddings and delivers Friday sermons at various mosques in the city. Khan also organizes annual Hajj pilgrimage tours to Mecca and is the founder and president of North American Imams Federation (NAIF), an organization that says it provides supportive services to imams in the U.S.
But Khan is best known for his role as president of ICNA’s New York branch, the largest within the Islamic organization, which also serves as its headquarters. ICNA was started by expatriate members of South Asian Islamic groups, such as Bangladesh’s Jamaat-E-Islami, in the early 1970s. It is currently a forum for Muslims throughout North America, and the organization describes itself as devoted to educating the public about Islam. It sponsors an annual convention that draws thousands of Muslims.
The accusations against Khan have upset ICNA members, said Dr. Saider Rahman Chowdhury, an ICNA member who said he has known Khan since 1992, when they were neighbors in Jamaica, Queens.
“Imam Khan has been very helpful to our community,” said Chowdhury, who said Khan had played a significant role years ago “to end alternate side-parking for Muslims in New York City on the days of Eid-Ul-Fitr and Eid-Ul-Adha.”
“I saw him many times in front of the United Nations,” said Giash Ahmed, the New York president of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), which has long been the main political opposition to Awami League, the party currently in power. “Imam Khan has been at the forefront of anti-war and pro-democracy demonstrations in New York, including the protests against the military regime in Bangladesh a few years ago,” said Ahmed.
But not everyone has stuck by Khan.
“He was a good friend of mine,” said Qazi Qayyoom, a Bangladeshi imam at the Muhammadi Center in Jackson Heights. “But when I came to know of his past a few years ago, I discontinued my connection with him.”
Prosecutors in Bangladesh have said that if the U.S. refuses to extradite Khan to stand trial, he can be tried in absentia.
Three years ago, an online Bengali newspaper reported that the U.S. Justice Department was requesting information from the Bangladesh government about Khan, leading to speculation that he might be investigated for allegations of falsifying information when he entered the U.S. Eli Rosenbaum, the Justice Department official named by the paper as the initiator of the inquiry, said in a brief telephone interview that his agency “does not comment on potential cases. We can only comment on cases that have gone to trial, and, even then, only after the trial concludes.”
Leaders of U.S.-based Bangladeshi groups such as the New York branch of the Forum for Secular Bangladesh, said they are deeply dismayed that Khan continues to head community organizations even though he is under investigation in Bangladesh. The forum had planned a demonstration against the war crimes of 1971, but it was cancelled earlier this month after the group failed to get permission on time from the city.
“People suffered a lot during the war. We want to close the chapter and move forward,” said Abdul Baten, vice-president of the forum. “There is enough evidence to prosecute Khan. If he is innocent, then he can prove his innocence in front of the tribunal.”
The charges against Khan come after many years of rumors and allegations that he was part of an Al-Badr execution squad. Journalists in the U.S. and Bangladesh have written about the accusations.
“I have been researching the executioners of Bangladesh’s war since 1975, and my account of Khan was part of that effort,” said Jamal Hasan. “Now Bangladesh has to prove he is a mass murderer,” said Hasan, a Bangladeshi-American freelance journalist from Washington, D.C.