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War crimes

Burdened by the past

Violence triggered by judgments that deal with crimes committed in the independence war four decades ago is rocking Bangladesh today. Islamist forces are attacking religious minorities, the police and people who disagree with them.
Rally on Shahbagh Square in February. Monirul Alam/picture-alliance/dpa Rally on Shahbagh Square in February.

The recent fundamentalist rage started because of arrest warrants, prison sentences and death sentences for three leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami because of war crimes committed in 1971. Jamaat is a political party that claims the Koran is its ideological base. When this essay was being finalised in mid March, almost 80 persons had been killed. Eight policemen were among the dead. The issue at stake is not only the nation’s past, but its present and future too.

After nine months of cruel civil war, what had been East Pakistan, a region exploited by West Pakistan, became sovereign Bangladesh on 16 December 1972. Thanks to the freedom fighters and military support from India, this nation managed to break away from Pakistan. According to estimates, 3 million people were killed in the war. There were uncounted cases of rape. Some 30 million people had to flee their homes, and 10 million of them crossed the Indian border.

Pakistan’s soldiers were not the only ones to commit horrendous crimes. Pro-Pakistani Bengalis did so too. They were Islamists who collaborated with Pakistan’s army as paramilitary volunteers (“Razakars”) or members of death squadrons. They were never held accountable. Pakistan had been founded in 1947 as the nation of Indian Muslims. Its two “wings” were more than 2000 kilometres apart.

Bangladesh’s first constitution of 1972 embraced secularism. It made political action based on religion illegal. A first attempt to try perpetrators of war crimes was made in 1973, with the International Crimes Tribunal Act serving as the legal basis. Things changed fast, however, after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence leader and Bangladesh’s first prime minister, was murdered along with his family in the course of the first of a series of military coups in 1975.

In 1976, Jamaat-e-Islami became a formally recognised political party again. Its leader Ghulam Azam returned from Pakistan. The constitution was changed several times, and in 1988, Islam was defined to be the state religion. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a major political force that emphasises Bangladesh’s Muslim identity, made the smaller and more radical Jamaat respectable again and uses it as a political ally.

BNP-Jamaat coalitions ran the country from 1991 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2006, when these parties and their allies commanded majorities in Parliament. Jamaat has become part of the establishment and can rely on supporters in the state bureaucracy, the courts, business, the education and health sectors and even the army. It has a national presence and has spawned several non-governmental organisations.

It is generally assumed that several Jamaat leaders were involved in war crimes. Demands to try them have been raised for a long time. In late 2008, the Awami League won an absolute majority in general elections. Its prime minister is Sheikh Hasina Wajed, one of Sheikh Mujib’s two surviving daughters. The opposition is led by Begum Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairwoman, who is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, a former general and president. Like Mujib, Zia was murdered. His role in a series of military coups remains disputed. Political rivalry made Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda personally hate one another.  

In the election campaign in 2008, Sheik Hasina promised to prosecute war crimes. In the meantime, the old International Crimes Tribunal Act was amended to suit international standards. In the process, foreign lawyers were consulted. There are currently two tribunals with three judges each. Tribunal proceedings are public and attended by journalists. Appeals against judgements are possible.

In January, Abul Kalam Azad, a TV preacher and former Jamaat leader, was sentenced to death for genocide, torture and other crimes in absentia. It is believed that he is living in Pakistan. The second judgment was passed on 5 February. Abdul Qader Molla, Jamaat’s deputy general-secretary, was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

New youth movement

Some people considered the judgement too mild. Some 100,000 young people rallied in the Shahbagh district of Dhaka, the capital city. They demanded the death sentence. Their mass movement is new and not guided by any political party. Its coordinator is a new organisation called Gono Jagoron Moncho (Mass Awakening Platform). The young activists do not allow established political leaders to address their rallies.

The movement is mostly driven by young people – bloggers, students and social networkers. They were not born at the time of the war, but they appreciate the country’s initial secular values. They want a democratic and pluralistic society. They do not oppose religions, but do not want the faith to be manipulated for political purposes. Some of them are devout Muslims. Shahbagh Square, inofficially renamed Projonmo Chottor (“Generation Square”), remains their hub. Some ob­servers compare the events there to those on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Jamaat and its youth organisation Islami Chhatro Shibir are doing what they can to discredit this movement, spreading lies on the internet. Newspapers and TV stations that are close to Jamaat are chipping in. On 15 February, Ahmed Rajib Haider, a blogger and leading member of the protest movement was brutally murdered in front of his house in Dhaka. The killers were probably Islamists. Other bloggers have been attacked too.

On 28 February, Delwar Hossain ­Sayeedi, Jamaat’s vice president, was sentenced to death for war crimes committed in 1971. The judges found him guilty of collaborating with the Pakistani military and participating in atrocities. In response to the judgement, Jamaat supporters have become even more aggressive. They want to intimidate their opponents and do not shy from attacking the police.

The tribunals are not entirely uncontroversial however. There was a “Skype affair” for instance. Mohammad Nizamul Huq, a leading judge, had held long Skype conversations with a Bangladeshi lawyer in Brussels. This jurist heads the Bangladesh Centre for Genocide Studies. Islamists seem to have hacked the internet connection. In any case, the London-based magazine The Economist published details. The defendants’ lawyers immediately accused the judge of not being impartial. He had to resign and was replaced fast. As The Economist later criticised, however, the new judge did not hear all witnesses.

Intellectuals who are close to the BNP point out various other legal shortcomings. Human Rights Watch, the international agency,  also states that the trials are "replete with irregularities". However, Mizanur Rahman, the head of the Bangladesh National Human Rights Commission, insists that the tribunals comply with international norms.

Dan W. Mozena, the US ambassador in Dhaka, said on 11 March, that his government supports bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity. He added that trials must be fair, transparent and consistent with national and international standards. He also expressed deep concern about recent attacks on the minority communities. He argued that the Shahbagh movement is an example of people peacefully making use of their fundamental democratic rite to express their views in public. The European Union is similarly in favour of judicial procedures tackling the past, and equally insists on international standards. It opposes the death penalty however.

Bangladesh’s major non-governmental organisations are in favour of the tribunals in principle, but they have commented neither on the judgements nor the Shahbagh movement, though some of their staff take part in the rallies. Nonetheless, Sultana Kamal, the prominent head of the human rights organisation Ain o Salishi Kendro, has spoken out in solidarity with the movement.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has expressed worries about violence escalating. The organisation has called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda, the opposition leader, to enter into dialogue. General elections are due at the end of this year, and there is reason to fear that current unrest is the beginning of a bitter and blood-trenched election campaign that does not focus on the immediate challenges this poor nation faces, but on its religious underpinnings instead.  

In mid-March, the brother of Ahmed Imtiaz Bulbul, a popular musician and former freedom fighter, was murdered. Islamists probably wanted to retaliate for Ahmed Imtiaz Bulbul’s testimony against veteran Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam in October. Azam was arrested in January. Shadows of the traumatic past are casting darkness on Bangladesh’s present – and perhaps its future too.

Abdullah Al-Farooq was a freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s liberation war. He is a retired journalist and a board member of NETZ, a German civil-society organisation that specialises in development cooperation with Bangladesh.