Bangladesh braces for divisive war-crimes trial
By Sebastian Strangio
DHAKA – A special tribunal in Bangladesh has indicted four members of the country’s main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, on suspicion of committing mass atrocities during the country’s 1971 Liberation War.
Those arrested, including party president Motiur Rahman Nizami and his deputy Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, have been remanded in custody indefinitely and are likely to face charges of genocide, murder, rape and arson. Travel bans have been imposed on a few dozen more suspects.
The indictments, issued late last month, were the opening act of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal, established in March, which is
seeking to prosecute those responsible for atrocities during the bloody war that resulted in the country’s birth.
The 1971 conflagration, which erupted when the Pakistani military attempted to prevent the secession of the country’s eastern wing, led to the widespread massacre of unarmed civilians and the systematic execution of leading Bengali intellectuals. Some sources say 3 million people perished during the 10-month conflict, while as many as 200,000 women were raped.
Although attempts at justice began after the defeat of the Pakistani army by Indian and Bangladeshi forces in December 1971, the tribunal process was derailed after the assassination of independence icon Sheik Mujibur Rahman four years later. For the following three decades, a succession of military administrations has swept aside all attempts at justice, fearing it could implicate many within their own ranks.
For Bangladesh, the trials come four decades late, and many of those most responsible are either dead or living in the relative sanctuary of Pakistan. But Mahbub Alam, the general manager of Dhaka’s Liberation War Museum, which commemorates the 1971 atrocities, said that there was a widespread desire to see justice done. “In this country, if you go into each and every village you will find war victims,” said Alam, who lost his father in the Liberation War. “The people who did all these kinds of misdeeds are the beneficiaries of the creation of Bangladesh,” he says. “They are the beneficiaries of the country, of three million martyrs.”
But the government’s focus on razakars – internal collaborators who led, assisted and committed crimes in conjunction with the Pakistani administration then in control of the country – has whipped up controversy in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. The Awami League government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which was elected in a landslide in 2008 in part on promises of a trial, says it has evidence proving the involvement of senior Jamaat members in the 1971 atrocities. Critics, however, say the tribunal is being used to settle domestic political disputes and runs the risk of unleashing social chaos.
Don Beachler, an associate professor of political science at New York’s Ithaca College, said the government has set up the tribunal in part to tar Jamaat-e-Islami as allies of the Pakistani army and “enemies of the Bangladeshi people”. The fact that Jamaat ruled in coalition with the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party – a key rival of the Awami League – from 2001 to 2006 has only provided an “extra motive” to pursue the Islamist movement, he added.
To be sure, Nizami and other Jamaat leaders clearly have reason to be concerned. Nizami founded and led the Badr militia, which committed numerous acts of violence against civilians in support of the Pakistani army’s campaign to repress Bengali nationalism. “Nizami was active against independence and advocated violence against Hindus who were seen as the source of Bangladeshis’ alleged betrayal of Pakistan and Islam,” he says. “On the merits and the politics Nizami has much to fear.”
Given the politically charged nature of the process, however, the relatively open-and-shut case against Nizami and his deputies could be compromised by procedural inadequacies and a perception of government heavy handedness. Some observers fear the arrests of Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid on June 29 were the first sign that the process was compromised by political manipulation.
The pair, along with top preacher Delwar Hossain Saydee, were detained on the obscure charge of “offending religious sentiment” after they compared their persecution by the Awami League government to the sufferings of the Prophet Mohammed. Only once they were in custody did the government move ahead with questioning on war crimes-related charges.
In a July 14 editorial in the Daily Star, one of Bangladesh’s leading English-language daily newspapers, human-rights advocate Mozammel H Khan wrote that the leaders’ arrest on such “trivial charges” could undermine the credibility of the government’s case against them. “It might create a boomerang effect,” he wrote, “for the government in their pledge to bring the alleged war criminals, of which the three arrestees are believed to be leading members, to book.”
Meanwhile, opposition to the process is building among Jamaat and its allies. Last month, Khaleda Zia, the BNP president whose party ruled the country in coalition from Jamaat from 2001 to 2006, demanded the immediate release of its leaders, terming the arrests “a heinous example of political repression”. Jamaat’s leaders have vowed to fight the charges in court, accompanying it with “peaceful” street protests.
Jamaat, which has close links to its more powerful namesake in Pakistan, has more than 10 million followers, and the prosecution of its leaders could potentially provoke a social upheaval. After Nizami’s arrest, for example, violent street riots erupted and injured more than 80 people – a foretaste of what could greet the opening of the trials. Others have forecast a chilling in Bangladesh’s relations with Middle Eastern nations that have close links to Jamaat.
Caitlin Reger, a senior associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice who has written extensively on the International Crimes Tribunal, said trials of mass atrocities were rarely politically uncontroversial, but that they have still produced meaningful results in Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Ultimately, she said, the quality of the evidence placed before the court would determine the success or failure of the tribunal.
“Based on comparative experiences, a trial that is not considered legitimate is likely to produce weak results that are susceptible to challenge further down the line,” she said. “The focus has to remain on the crimes that have been committed and not on the political affiliations of potential suspects, or else the validity and effectiveness of the trial will be undermined.”
Despite the political animus apparently driving the process, there is a widespread desire to see responsible politicians brought to justice. Ali Riaz, a professor of politics at Illinois State University, said the trials could bring to close a painful episode of Bangladeshi history, comparing it to Germany’s Nuremburg Trials and the prosecution of war criminals from Phnom Penh to Belgrade.
He said that if the trials were carried out in a transparent manner, the political undercurrents would be less likely to undermine the process. “I hope these trials will be able to help Bangladeshis, especially the new generation, be aware of the suffering and cost the nation paid for being independent and understand how religion can be abused to justify heinous crimes,” he said.
As the trials against Jamaat’s leaders unfold, the Awami League government is likely to face “serious” challenges, he said, but reversing the process would only worsen the situation. “Now that the process has started, there is no going back,” Riaz said. “That would have serious ramifications.”