The completion of the war crimes trial will bring a painful episode in Bangladesh's history to a close. It will establish the rule of law, and make young citizens understand how religion was abused to justify murder and rape.

For Bangladesh, December 2011 is a landmark; the country celebrates its 40th independence anniversary. It also faces the gigantic challenge of moving ahead with the historic trial of the local agents of the Pakistani army who killed, raped and maimed hundreds of thousands during the liberation war of 1971 — an uphill task in the face of organised resistance by the main Opposition party.

According to official and non-government accounts, nearly three million people were killed and thousands of women raped in nine months of unprecedented violence as the marauding Pakistani soldiers and their local loyalists tried to suppress the mass awakening against the religio-political subjugation of the majority population in the former East Pakistan.

The trial was long overdue. After a shocking delay in reckoning with the atrocities of 1971 — much of which was due to Bangladesh's about-turn following the 1975 bloody coup — the present government led by Sheikh Hasina initiated the move towards justice.

But the trial has faced hostile propaganda. Motivated campaigners argue that with the 195 ‘war criminals' — military officers who led the round-ups and summary executions of Bengalis — slipping away to Pakistan, there is no logic in trying the local collaborators. But the argument lacks substance because even after 40 years, almost every household in Bangladesh bears the wounds of 1971. The trial is being held in an open court under a domestic law, and the accused are getting adequate opportunities to defend themselves.

It is true that evidence to convict a suspect may be difficult to get as the events are 40 years old. Much of the key evidence was destroyed by the perpetrators when they, or their allied political forces, were in power. The atrocities carried out during the nine months of the liberation war were abetted in by local collaborators, who were leaders and activists of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim League and part of the killer gangs formed by the raiding army. A total of seven accused, widely known as the key perpetrators, are presently in the dock. Some others are to be tried in the coming weeks.

‘Suspects directly involved'

The investigative and prosecution teams of the Crimes Tribunal, which worked for over a year to collect evidence from home and abroad, said they were successful in justifying their cases. They also found that in most cases, the suspects were directly involved in murder, abduction and rape

Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent of The New York Times, described the Pakistan military crackdown of 1971 as “a pogrom on a vast scale” in a land where “vultures grow fat.” Well-known researcher R.J. Rummel stated: “In East Pakistan [General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan and his top generals] also planned to murder its Bengali intellectual, cultural, and political elite. They also planned to indiscriminately murder hundreds of thousands of its Hindus and drive the rest to India. And they planned to destroy its economic base to ensure that it would be subordinate to West Pakistan for at least a generation to come. This despicable and cutthroat plan was outright genocide.”

However, the horror unleashed by the army did not succeed. India opened its borders and sheltered 10 million refugees, and helped the Bengali freedom fighters. Under Indira Gandhi, India intervened militarily in the decisive weeks after it was attacked on the western front.

For Bangladesh, December has been a month of joy and tragedy. On the eve of the unconditional surrender of 90,000 Pakistani army personnel to the Joint India-Bangladesh Command, the local abettors of the raiding army, under a well thought-out plan, eliminated hundreds of leading Bengali intellectuals. Philosophers, professors, writers, poets, journalists, doctors, engineers, and social thinkers were among those picked up from their houses, blindfolded and taken to various desolate pits in Dhaka's suburbs, to be tortured and slaughtered. The bodies were lying around for days until they were discovered after the Pakistan army's surrender in Dhaka. Many Bengali women were made sex slaves. Thousands were gang-raped and dumped in mass graves.

But the tragedy of Bangladesh is that while the 195 Pakistani war criminals reached their homes safe, thanks to the 1974 Delhi tripartite agreement, none of the local perpetrators was brought to justice. Pakistan “condemned and deeply regretted” the crimes committed by its army but did not prosecute a single perpetrator as promised. And when a Bangladesh government moved decisively to prosecute the collaborators on its soil under a law passed by Parliament, the main Opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, came out with an astonishing defence of the war criminals.

The party, led by the former premier, Khaleda Zia, has demanded that the Crimes Tribunal proceedings be stopped immediately because of what it believes is a violation of the rights of the accused. The BNP, which has a political alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami — whose six top leaders and a key BNP leader are now detained — has also called upon the international community to pressure Bangladesh into abandoning the trial.

The BNP stand is seen as a desperate attempt to foil the trial when it is progressing well. It is also seen as a blatant disrespect for the law of the land and rejection of the country's history. According to many independent analysts, the party's open patronisation of the accused will certainly not endear it to the vast majority. It appears to have formally acknowledged what its detractors have long suspected it of.

Lobbyists abroad

In fact, the International Crimes Tribunal, established in 2010, has given the accused more privileges than what tribunals in many other countries have accorded to the accused in similar cases. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's most organised fundamentalist outfit, has solid financial backing and active sympathisers abroad. It has appointed lobbyists in the U.S., the U.K. and the European countries to foil the trial.

As an independent country, Bangladesh enjoys an inalienable right to implement its law. However, while pledging to hold a transparent trial, the government sought international assistance. Visiting Dhaka thrice, Stephen Rapp, U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes, acknowledged the horrible crimes committed in 1971. But he regretted that Bangladesh did not accept many of the suggestions he made to make the trial fair and transparent.

For Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the formation of the ICT was a bold step. It was seen as a lost national dream come true. Parliament, in which the ruling alliance has a two-thirds majority, also passed a unanimous resolution in its inaugural session to try war criminals.

The present trial is a resumption of the stalled process that the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman government began soon after independence. A total of 752 accused persons were convicted to various terms of imprisonment and an estimated 11,000 others were in jail. But the process was stalled by military ruler Ziaur Rahman, founder of the BNP, who repealed the law, and released all the convicted and undertrial prisoners three months after Mujib's assassination in 1975.

Despite a widespread national desire to see justice done after 1975, a succession of military regimes swept aside all such attempts. War criminals were rehabilitated in politics and some were even inducted in Gen. Rahman and Khaleda Zia's Cabinet. In the 2008 general elections, an overwhelming majority voted for the present ruling alliance for its commitment to try the war criminals.

The completion of the trial will bring to a close a painful episode of Bangladesh's history. It will also establish the rule of law, and make young citizens understand how religion was abused to justify murder and rape.

Whatever challenges the Hasina government faces today and whatever its failures and shortcomings are in delivering good governance, the trial of the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity is fundamental for Bangladesh. It is the answer to an aggrieved nation of countless bereaved families, widows and orphans, wounded and immobilised. It is an unfinished task which needs to be completed to remove a national stigma.

(The writer is Bangladesh Liberation War veteran, a senior journalist and author. Email: hh1971@gmail.com)

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