Justice in Bangladesh after four decades

In trying crimes against humanity from the 1970’s, Bangladesh faces new challenges.

by Uttam Das

Bangladesh has begun trials for crimes perpetrated during the nationâÄôs 1971 war of liberation. The New Age, a Dhaka daily newspaper, recounts that âÄúhorrendous crimes against humanity were committed during the liberation war.âÄù Previous governments have been reluctant to bring the perpetrators to trial. The ruling Awami League government has announced a three-member tribunal and separate teams for the investigation and prosecution of the crimes in a release hours before Bangladesh celebrated the 40th anniversary of its independence March 26. Among crimes against humanity, the tribunal will try crimes against peace, crimes of genocide and violations of humanitarian law in line with the 1949 Geneva Convention, as Dhaka-based newspaper The Daily Star reported March 27. The trial will be conducted under a special national law, the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act of 1973. The United Nations is to give technical support in facilitating the sharing of related expertise and experiences of other countries for the trial of similar crimes, the Star reported. In a March 27 editorial, the Star commented: âÄúThe people of Bangladesh in 1971 were the victims of one of the worst genocides and other forms of war crimes in history.âÄù However, âÄúit is a travesty that the perpetrators, for some reason or the other, have eluded justice âÄôtil now.âÄù The liberation war cost an estimated three million lives; 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls are reported to have been raped or violated by Pakistani forces and local collaborators who joined as auxiliary forces. According to the United Nations, one out of seven Bangladeshis, ten million in total, had to take refuge in neighboring India during the war. The trial of the war crimes has been a long-standing national demand in Bangladesh. The Awami League pledged this trial in its 2008 election manifesto. The Awami League is considered a secular and pro-Indian party. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the party led the nation in the war of liberation and formed a government thereafter. On Aug. 15, 1975, then-Prime Minister Rahman, whom the Bangladeshis widely revere as a founding father, was assassinated along with family members. Only two daughters, including current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, survived the assassination. After almost four decades, the trial has come as a huge challenge both for the Awami League and for the country, which is plagued with severe electricity crises, unemployment, a rise in radical militancy, deteriorating law and order and other problems. The culmination of these is likely to create public outcry and unrest which could bring an increase in demands for the government of the opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to step down. The BNP is aligned more closely with pro-Pakistani interests. The alleged perpetrators of the war crimes have been mainly linked to a religious-based political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and its allies, which reportedly have connections to Pakistan and the Middle East. Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the BNP, which held power between 2001 and 2006, is credited with patronizing the alleged âÄúwar criminalsâÄù to come out of hiding in the late 1970s to launch political parties. The Jamaat-e-Islami is on the defensive, sensing a mounting political and moral scrutiny by the public. According to the Star, Jamaat claims the government is attempting to prosecute in order to âÄúeliminateâÄù them from the âÄúdomain of politics.âÄù Jamaat is preparing its defense. For its part, the BNP is opposed to the governmentâÄôs move. According to pro-BNP (and Jamaat) lawyers, the attempted trial has a âÄúpolitical motive,âÄù as the Star reported March 17. However, the mainstream human rights organizations and most of the media in Bangladesh appreciate the government working to, as a Star editorial sees it, âÄúbring justice to the war criminals of 1971.âÄù The influential daily newspaper Prothom Alo commented that the trial initiative brought forth a chance for bringing justice to the nation. Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-month guerilla war waged by the Mukti Bahini. These freedom fighters were civilians of all ages and occupations, men and women alike, who fought Pakistani military forces. But this trial process should be âÄúa means of vindication not vengeance,âÄù as the Star commented. Columnist Sohrab Hassan wrote in Prothom Alo on March 31 that the attempted trial brings into question both the stability and the human rights record of Bangladesh. According to Hassan, party politics is unimportant. What matters is how the trial is conducted, whether the perpetrators are held to a just and moral standard and whether the trial process is accepted at home and abroad. A trial of such historic, personal and civil proportion calls for national consensus. Given the staunch opposition from the BNP, only time will tell how the Awami League government handles the matter. Uttam Das welcomes comments at [email protected]