Bangladesh: Justice or revenge?

Brig( retd) Farooq Hameed Khan   Bangladesh - war crime

The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) setup in Bangladesh in 2010 by Prime Minister Hasina Wajid’s Awami League government, sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah,  a senior Jamaat-e Islami (JI) leader to life imprisonment on February 05 for  alleged  ‘atrocities’, in a trial that reopened the wounds of 1971 East Pakistan tragedy. In January the tribunal awarded death penalty in absentia to former JI activist Abul Kalam Azad  in the first ‘war crimes’ trial verdict.

The  ICT, a domestic body with no international oversight, is currently trying  nine  JI leaders  including  its 90 years old former chief Prof. Ghulam Azam and two politicians belonging to Begum Khaleda Zia’s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. All the  detained/under trial leaders/ Islamic scholars denied  charges of ‘genocide,’ and accused the government of carrying out  witch hunt  against their political opponents.         Do these trials fulfill the demands of international justice and fundamental  human rights? While Bangladeshi government claims that the trials are fair and meet requisite international standards, many global human rights organizations have raised questions about the fairness, transparency and conduct of the tribunals.

Some of the flaws in ICT process that were highlighted by  war crimes’ experts included lengthy pre-charge detention of suspects , inability to challenge the jurisdiction of the tribunal or make interlocutory appeals, lack of presumption of innocence and lack of adequate protection for  defendants and witnesses.

The Human Rights Watch called these trials ‘deeply problematic, riddled with questions about independence and impartiality of judges and fairness of legal process’. As per Asia Director for the International Commission of Jurists, the court process has been so flawed, it raises the question of whether it might be best not to have a trial at all. He added, “the verdict actually doesn’t really advance the cause of justice”.      In December 2012, international media published contents of leaked lengthy communication between former Chairman of Tribunal Muhammad  Nizam ul Haq and a Brussels  based Bangladeshi human rights lawyer  which indicated unlawful collusion between Judiciary , prosecution and  government to structure judgments and undue pressure to get  quick verdicts . These transcripts led to Nizam ul Haq’s resignation  and dealt  serious blow to the credibility of the Tribunal’s legal process.      The ICT trials raise two fundamental questions. Is it legal and just to prosecute those patriotic East Pakistanis who resisted the dismemberment of Pakistan and faced Indian  armed/ trained  Mukti Bahini  in the rightful defence of their country? Can these trials that are perceived to have loopholes and are based on grossly exaggerated propaganda of 1971 related ‘atrocities,’ deliver true justice?         In her ground breaking book , ‘Dead Reckoning- memories of 1971 Bangladesh war’, Sarmila Bose, in one of the first  independent scrutiny of this conflict,  rejects the common Indo – Bangladesh  allegation of ‘genocide’ of three million Bengalis by Pakistan Army  as  ‘nothing more than a gigantic rumor’, since it was not based on any authentic  accounting or ground survey.       Based on Sarmila’s research  of official records, interviews,  ground surveys and the available evidence, she estimates with reasonable confidence that at least 50, 000 – 100,000 people perished in the  1971 conflict , including combatants and non combatants Bengalis / non Bengalis, hindus and muslims, Indians and Pakistanis.         Sarmila Bose  emphatically states, that in the ethnic violence unleashed in the name of Bengali nationalism, while  non-Bengali men, women and children were slaughtered, the West Pakistani businessmen  and outnumbered, disarmed West Pakistani  Army officers / families, too, were mercilessly killed.

What does Hasina Wajid wish to achieve through the ongoing trials? While the Awami League government with its historical pro Indian credentials may be seeking  revenge against Islamic forces that opposed East Pakistan’s separation, it helps to fan anti Pakistan sentiments and hatred amongst the younger post 1971 Bangladeshi generation. In particular these trials that surely enjoy tacit Indian support, present another opportunity  to  demonize Pakistan Army and keep alive this  emotive issue in the Bangladeshi public psyche.      The Awami League leadership needs to do some soul searching. Will these trials lead to peace or cause deeper divisions and turmoil in Bangladeshi society? Can Bangladesh  afford  greater polarization between the country’s secular and Islamist forces? After 41 years of independence, is it wise to reactivate the scars from 1971 civil war? Instead of seeking revenge why not follow the path of political reconciliation?      During Foreign Minister Hina Khar’s visit to Dacca last November  to formally invite Prime Minister Hasina Wajid to an Islamabad summit,  her Bangladeshi counterpart reportedly sought apology  for alleged ‘war crimes’ committed by Pakistan  army during 1971 East Pakistan’s secession movement. Perhaps Sarmila Bose’s stunning revelations continue to be ignored in Bangladesh.       While Pakistan has always desired friendship and brotherly ties with people of Bangladesh, the Awami League leadership would do well to keep closed chapters closed.  It is time to move on and bury the bitterness of past.

Should we forget our former Pakistani citizens in their hour of trial? A protest seminar was recently held in Lahore which was presided over by ex President of Pakistan, Justice (retd)Rafiq Tarrar  and speakers  included  a retired High Court Chief Justice, senior lawyers , political and defence analysts,  journalists and civil society representatives. They called upon Bangladesh government to stop victimization of former East Pakistanis who campaigned and fought for united Pakistan.       The participants appealed to government of Pakistan, international community, OIC, United Nations and International Human Rights Commission to intervene and help prevent  travesty of justice through these ICT trials.       While Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote to his Bangladeshi counterpart, seeking clemency for those undergoing trials including the aging Prof. Ghulam Azam,  the Pakistani government  remains indifferent apparently out of  diplomatic/ political compulsions with not even one word of sympathy or support.      Should the Pakistani political leadership, human rights champions and the media continue with the silence that they have maintained over the trials?

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