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Delayed justice
Bangladesh liberation war trials and its impact

The trials in Bangladesh for the war crimes committed during the country’s liberation war of 1971 have brought Bangladesh back to a crossroads, exposing the underlying tensions in the country. Deadly violence erupted on the streets as the controversial International Crimes Tribunal sentenced the country’s top Islamist leaders and wartime head of the Jamaat-e-Islami to life sentences and imprisonment.

Although the current situation is a daunting reminder of the unhealed wounds of the liberation war, it seems to be a difficult but necessary procedure that Bangladesh must undergo to get some closure and move on. It is also a critical time for the nation’s political and religious identity as the trials could spark off underlying currents of division within the society that consists of over 160 million Muslims.

Nevertheless, it is not only the moral responsibility of Bangladesh’s current, somewhat stable democratic government but also an important procedure to safeguard the nation from possible pro-jihadi elements who could potentially spell more trouble if the Jamaat-e-Islami succeed in their strategy of maintaining unrest in order to further pro-jihadi sentiments.

Current situation

The International Crimes Tribunal sentenced ninety year old Ghulam Azam to 90 years in prison for masterminding atrocities during the 1971 war of Independence against Pakistan. The Islamist was the wartime head of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Azam, who led Jamaat from 1969 to 2000, faced 61 charges and was found guilty of each one, ranging from incitement to failure to prevent killing during the war that killed 3 million people. Now a spiritual leader, the wartime head was spared death penalty because of his old age and health.

Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, the secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami was convicted on charges of genocide, conspiracy, killing of intellectuals, torture, rape and abduction. He also led the infamous Al-Badr force which is lambasted for carrying out a systematic cleansing campaign against the Bengali intelligentsia during the struggle. Azharul Islam, another top Jamaat leader was also awarded six war crime charges, including genocide. Three Islamists have been sentenced and five more Jamaat leaders and two leaders from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, also Islamist, are on trial.

While the verdicts passed cheers among the war veterans, it also sparked widespread deadly violence on the streets of Bangladesh as Jamaat supporters clashed with police who crack-downed on the armed protestors. The protestors believe that the war- crime trials are aimed at eliminating its leaders. More than hundred people have been killed in protests and counter-protests since the tribunal’s first verdict in early 2013.

Following these events, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh banned the Jamaat-e-Islami from contesting future polls and cancelled its registration as a party. This landmark ruling left the largest fundamentalist group of Bangladesh with an uncertain future, and its political legitimacy challenged. The party is accused of not believing in the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh. This move also put the future of the main opposition party BNP, a crucial ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami in jeopardy.

Unlike other war crimes courts, the Bangladesh war Crimes Tribunal is not endorsed by the United Nations. The verdicts passed by the special court has also been rejected by the Human Rights Watch Group that has criticized the court’s procedures for not meeting international standards, rendering its verdict’s unjust.

In March 2010, the Government of Bangladesh, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, re-established an International Crimes Tribunal to investigate the war crimes as the government maintained that the trials were needed to bring the perpetrators of the 1971 war violence to justice.

However, there are accusations against Hasina’s government of using the tribunal against the two biggest opposition parties. BNP leader Khaleda Zia, former Prime Minister and Hasina’s arch rival has called the tribunal a ‘farce’. The ruling party however, has rejected such claims.

Historical background

The partition of the subcontinent in 1971 created the state of Pakistan which justified its existence as a nation for Muslims. This religious identity was inextricably supposed to be the nation’s identity. The partition thus divided the continent on religious grounds and Pakistan got the regions with predominantly Muslim population. This resulted in two wings of the country-East Pakistan (currently Pakistan) and West Pakistan (Currently Bangladesh). The two wings were separated by a vast Indian Territory and, apart from religion, had very little in common.

Of the two, East Pakistan was the poorer wing which suffered social, economic and political discrimination from the Western-based ruling elite. It can be said that the East Pakistani’s were intentionally kept out of core administrative, political and military positions and decisions. Regardless of the shared religion, the country was divided due to differences in language, culture and history.

The inferiority complex and successive discrimination against East Pakistani’s by the West-Pakistani’s gave rise to Bengali nationalism. The cry for a separate nation for Bengali’s was based on the belief that language, history and culture predated the commonality of religion as the basis for nation-building.

By 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman began a nationalist movement in East Pakistan as the leader of the Awami League, the party at the forefront of the independence movement. To ease tensions, the military ruler of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan held free nationwide elections for the first time in the political history of Pakistan.    

Mujibur’s Awami League won a decisive victory over Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan’s People’s Party. However, Bhutto refused to relinquish power and Mujibur refused to compromise. Therefore, power was never handed to Mujibur Rahman and Yayha Khan devised a tactic and postponed the sitting of the National Assembly.

What followed was an open revolt in East Pakistan in March 1971 which paved the way for a massive civil war. The Pakistani Army planned a military operation (‘Operation Searchlight’) to curb the Bengali Nationalist movement. The plan was to crush the movement and eliminate all opposition. However, the Bengali’s showed resistance and the operation which lasted nine months and consumed three million lives transformed into a bloody civil war. The operation facilitated the largest genocide since World War II.

In response, the Bengali military, paramilitary and unarmed civilians formed the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) which engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Pakistani forces. The Pakistani Army was aided by religious extremists of East Bangladesh. The Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams were fundamentalist militias that opposed the independence movement and engaged in systematic genocide and violence against Bengali intellectuals, students, journalists and religious minorities like the Hindus. The bloody civil war led to about ten million refugees fleeing to India. This and provocation by Pakistan at the LoC triggered India to enter the war in December 1971 in favor of the Bengali nationalists. The decisive intervention of India which provided economic, military and diplomatic support led to a defeated Pakistani Army’s unconditional surrender to the joint command of the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini on December 16th, 1971 which gave birth to Bangladesh.

The party that stood opposed to the nationalist struggle was the Jamaat-e-Islami. It collaborated with the Pakistani forces against the Bengali nationalists and perpetrated heinous war-crimes like genocide, torture, rape and violence against unarmed civilians, intellectuals and minorities. Today they face trials for these war-crimes, although they deny their acts.

Post independence, the Awami League came to power in Bangladesh but faced daunting challenges. In 1975, it was overthrown by the military and its leader Mujibur Rahman was killed. This triggered a series of military coups that resulted in a military-backed government and creation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. During this time, the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami was lifted and its leaders were allowed to return from exile. Their agenda now was the creation of an ‘Islamic State’ with Sharia law and closer relations with Pakistan. It eventually allied with Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Democracy was restored through parliamentary elections in 1991 and since then the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have alternated power. The popularity of Jamaat has reduced since 2008 while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Mujibur Rahman and leader of the Awami League has retained power.

Way forward

Although it is undeniable that Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League made the trials an integral part of their 2008 election manifesto to reap emotional and political dividends, the fact remains that regardless of political opportunism and political implications of the trials, it is a necessary step to heal old wounds and secure the society from religious extremism.

However, the setting up of the war crimes tribunal has brought about its share of significant challenges. The obvious risk comes from the intentions of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Even though it is now banned and slightly unpopular, it is still equipped with a youth following of fanatics who are capable of penetrating pro-jihadi sentiments into society. Under fire, their strategy has been to maintain unrest, cry foul and use Islam to exploit religious emotions as a shield and deny all charges. This way they can manage to keep Islamic fundamentalism alive.

Jamaate-e-Islami wants to exploit the possibility of violence and religious extremism. This was made evident by Jamaat’s reaction to the trial. Their tactical reaction was to claim itself to be under attack. They branded the trials as an attack on Islam.

There were protests by young activists who organized the Shahbag demonstrations to demand capital punishment for 1971 war criminals, which the Jamaat cleverly branded as an attack on Islam.

A counter-protest, demanding release of those accused and convicted, was launched by Jamaat-e-Islami as its leaders were the majority of those first identified for trial. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) initially expressed its support for Jamaat-e-Islami, a principal political ally. But, the BNP cautiously welcomed the Shahbag protest, while warning the government not to make political mileage from a movement demanding capital punishment for war criminals.

The war trials is a timely step for Bangladesh as if ignored, this could have given rise to the pro jihadi sentiments. The trials, instead of healing old wounds could create new wounds. Therefore it is necessary to crack-down on such organizations, for they can potentially worsen the already volatile situation. Polarization between the Islamists and their opponents can quickly degenerate into utter lawlessness as exemplified by the Shahbag protests. While Islam is undeniably the most prominent religion, any inability of the current government to take a strong stand on such issue may threaten Bangladesh’s image as a democratic, secular nation.