The war crime tribunals were set up to address a deep-seated national demand for justice, but they are facing a hostile campaign by vested interests at home and abroad
December is a landmark month for Bangladesh. It is the month of the liberation of the country from Pakistan in 1971. And it is also a reminder of a great national tragedy — it was during the same month that year that the marauding Pakistani army and their local agents systematically eliminated hundreds of secular intellectuals just before the liberation on December 16, 1971. It capped a nine-month orgy of violence against civilians in which three million people were killed, 400,000 women were raped and 10 million people fled for bordering Indian States as refugees.
This year, as the country celebrates four decades of its independence, it also faces the task of completing a historic trial against the perpetrators of those horrific crimes.
The trial was long overdue. The events following the bloody coup in 1975 in which Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was assassinated, and the divisive politics thereafter, caused many delays in reckoning with the cruelties. When Sheikh Hasina came to power, this was on her agenda. The move towards justice began on March 25, 2010, under a domestic law framed in 1971. But the path is yet not easy.
In the crucial last year of its tenure, the Hasina government faces, on the one hand, street protests by opposition parties positioning themselves ahead of the elections, and on the other, organized opposition against the trial by the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had opposed Bangladesh’s independence, supported by the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Jamaat-e-Islami and its militant students wing, Islami Chatra Shibir, have chosen the route of organized street violence. Their aim is clear — they want their key leaders, now on trial in war crimes tribunals, to be set free. Jamaat cadres — no one can forget that the party sided with Pakistan army in all conceivable ways to foil the national quest for freedom — have gone as far as to attack the police, snatching their rifles and setting on fire dozens of police vehicles in Dhaka and across the country. They also attacked the Law Minister's motorcade.
The spate of attacks across the country has left several hundred policemen injured, many of them hospitalized with serious injuries. The government sees these as ominous signs of a plot to destabilise the country and foil the trial. The manner in which the police came under attack was somewhat unprecedented, and astonishingly, in most cases, the police lost the battle to the attackers.
Neither have the arrests of a few hundreds Jamaatis stopped the violence. Jamaat, which has grown over the years to become the most organized cadre-based party both in terms of its funding and structure, launched the offensive from November, continuing it into the nationally sensitive month of December. In the backdrop of sustained street violence, secular, pro-liberation forces are seriously concerned that if such violence in the name of democracy is not checked, it may emerge as a single biggest threat to country’s liberal polity and security. There have been calls for a ban on Jamaat, but there are concerns too that proscription might send the party underground, with more dangerous consequences.
The main opposition BNP has not condemned the actions of its Islamist ally. Rather, it has been providing vital support to Jamaat’s game plan, to the extent that even BNP sympathizers are concerned that the “poisonous weed” of Jamaat’s theocratic and medieval political and social agenda might ultimately eat up the very vitals of what remains of the party’s remaining liberalism.
Alongside the unrest for the release of those on trial, Bangladesh has been witness to a separate set of violent protests by BNP and Jamaat for restoration of the caretaker government system. Pro-government activists, such as the Awami League student wings, have only added to a volatile situation by taking it upon themselves to thwart the opposition protests.
A number of cases in the war crimes courts are awaiting verdict, but the trial process has come under an increasingly hostile campaign at home and abroad. The head of one tribunal stepped down on December 11 after a controversy over his leaked Skype conversations with an expatriate war crimes expert. The tribunal chief’s e-mail and Skype accounts were hacked and the private conversations were published by a pro-opposition newspaper. The resignation, just ahead of case judgments, came as a big shock to vast majority of people who want justice done, but were celebrated as a “victory” by the Jamaat and BNP.
A total of 10 accused — most are Jamaat leaders — are presently in the dock. Jamaat has reportedly deployed significant sums of money to influence the US policymakers against the war crimes trial. Law minister, Shafique Ahmed, alleged that the government has evidence to show that Jamaat has appointed lobbying firms in the U.S. and the U.K. to frustrate the trial. The minister alleged publicly that Mir Kashem Ali, a Jamaat leader now facing trial, and also the key person behind the fast growing Islamic Bank, as also the head of Jamaat’s media house, had paid $25 million to the U.S. lobbying firm Casadian Associates.
These challenges to the war crimes trials have, in one sense, reawakened the “pro-liberation” forces, making them aware that there is no room for complacency. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who sees a conspiracy to malign her government at home and abroad, has vowed to move ahead with the trial to fulfil a national obligation.
While the Hasina government can take credit for some unique achievements towards secularising Bangladesh and improving relations with India, some high profile scams, including alleged corruption in the Padma bridge construction, the high prices of essentials, and the bad image of some ministers and field level activists, have all seen its popularity come down. The opportunity is being utilised by those who want this government to collapse even ahead of the next election, so that the vital war crime trial suffers a setback. The scrapping of the caretaker government system, and the U.S. displeasure over the government’s treatment of the Nobel Laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammed Yunus have complicated the scenario for Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina.
It is to be hoped that the fast developing situation will not impede the landmark trial, vital for healing a deep national wound. The trial is not only crucial for Bangladesh, but also for the region. If it stalls, there is every possibility of a resurgence of religious extremism in Bangladesh that is bound to affect its neighbours. Born out of a national war fought against religious bigotries and military chauvinism, Bangladesh cannot allow on its soil the tragedies being experienced by Afghanistan and Pakistan.
(The writer, a journalist and analyst, is available at firstname.lastname@example.org)