Trial of War Criminals in Bangladesh

bangladesh_loc_1996_map(riverseAsif Haroon Raja

After nine-month Indian aided insurgency, the Indian Army launched a three directional offensive and managed to conquer East Pakistan in 1971 without crossing a single major river and without reducing any of the towns converted into fortresses. Jessore and Mymensingh had been abandoned and not captured. The much trumpeted counter offensive in the West conceived to release pressure on the eastern front never took off. Outcome of the war fought in the eastern theatre was a foregone conclusion. With an overwhelming superiority in ground forces, complete mastery of the skies and domination in sea, and almost entire local population having turned hostile, the air and sea routes blocked, and the international community neutralized through Indian exterior manoeuvre, the Indian Army backed by Soviet Union could just barge in singing victory songs. It will be not wrong to say that the Indian Eastern Command was over stuffed with resources and was provided everything it wished for. In the face of such heavy odds, no Army in the world could have done any better.

After the fall of Dhaka on December 16, 1971, the Awami League (AL) leaders based in Calcutta were brought to Dhaka on an Indian air force plane in the last week of December. By that time, the Indian Army had shifted all stores, equipment, machinery and even household items in bulk to India. It was a well-organized plunder of a country they had liberated. With the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on January 8, 1972 and his return to Dhaka, the Bangladesh government commenced its journey as an independent State.

India declared as an afterthought that Pakistan Army had surrendered to joint command of India and Bangladesh and therefore it was not within the jurisdiction of India to repatriate the prisoners of war at her own. To start with, rather than building bridges, Mujib chose to raise the issue of trials of war criminals and wanted all the interned armed forces personnel in India to be tried in Bangladesh for their alleged atrocities during the 1971. He also wanted war reparations for the loss of property and damages done during the war. He made no mention of wanton loot and plunder of Indian Army. Later on his demand was shrunk to the size of 1000 war prisoners responsible for the genocide. After the visit of ZA Bhutto to India and signing of Simla Agreement in 1972, the list was further curtailed to 195. Mujib stuck to his guns that the so-called rogues would be tried as war criminals.  The State machinery was geared up to collect as much incriminating evidence against them to try them under the aegis of International Jury.

The Indians also worked on them by putting the alleged criminals in isolated jails and exerting pressure as well as resorting to torture. However, public interest to prosecute war criminals waned when facts started to surface about un-authenticated allegations blown out of all proportions together with the constantly declining economic health of Bangladesh. Moreover, the regime got busy in a witch-hunt at a grand scale against all those alleged to have corroborated with Pakistan Army under the “Collaboration Order”. The genocide and gang rapes committed by Mukti Bahini and Awami League activists against non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistan Bengalis at a large-scale was disregarded.

Instead of concentrating on dire economic woes, Mujib wasted his energies on farcical trials and in the process earned world-wide displeasure. The incredible logic propounded by Mujib to try the war criminals of Pakistan Army on the basis that Pakistan Army operating in former East Pakistan was an ‘occupation army’ and hence had no right to defend nation’s territorial integrity was ridiculous.

On August 28, 1973 India and Pakistan signed an agreement in Delhi to repatriate 93000 civil and military prisoners of war to Pakistan. Bengalis in Pakistan were to be returned to Bangladesh. The fate of 50,000 Biharis stranded in Bangladesh proclaiming themselves as Pakistanis was to be decided at a later date. Mujib clung to his demand of trial of 195 war criminals. Bhutto insisted that Pakistan would not recognise Bangladesh until all prisoners of war were released. The process of their repatriation commenced in batches in September 1973. Recognition of Bangladesh by Pakistan in February 1974 led to rapprochement between the two countries. A tripartite agreement between India-Pakistan-Bangladesh signed in April 1974 resolved all contentious issues related to 1971 war and paved the way for return of 195 war criminals as well. The last batch of prisoners of war reached Lahore in April 1974.

The founder of the new county couldn’t enjoy the fruits of freedom for long, for Mujib and his entire family were hacked to death in a military coup led by Maj Farooq and Maj Rashid on August 15, 1975. Only Mujib’s one daughter, Hasina Wajid the current PM of Bangladesh escaped death since she was abroad. Khondkar Mushtaq succeeded Mujib but he could stay in power for less than three months only. A counter coup took place on November 3, 1975 that brought Brig Khalid Musharraf to power. Hardly had he sat on the president’s chair for four days when another coup led by senior military officers displaced him on November 7. Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman was chosen to lead the country who remained in power for about six years. He amended the constitution, making Islam instead of secularism its first basic principle. Gen Hossain Ershad followed by Gen Zia’s daughter followed his policies. From Zia to Khalida, Bangladesh progressed and it came closer to Pakistan. The latter helped in building Bangladesh armed forces.

In 1997, Hasina Wajid captured power. Till her arrival, Mujib was forgotten and remembered as a despot who had misruled and created divisions in the country. During her first rule and now during her second tenure which is at its fag end, she tried hard to erase the negative impressions against her father. Apart from projecting Mujib as Bongabandhu, she brought his murderers to task by sentencing to death 15 ex officers of Army in November 1998.

In her second stint, on the advice of India, she not only reverted to secularism but also reopened old wounds that time had healed by opening war crime trials pertaining to 1971 period in 2010. This was entirely in violation of the 1974 tri-lateral agreement. FIRs registered against Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) members forming part of Al-Badar and Al-Shams in 1972 including Abdul Quader Molla were taken out of the cold freezer in 2010. After a one-sided trial, most have been awarded life sentence or death sentence. Quader and Maulana Ghulam Azam and several other JI leaders were given life sentence by the court but their sentences were converted to death sentence. Quader is the only one who was hanged to death on December 12, 2013. During this long period, Quader had accepted war of independence and had been twice elected as Member of Parliament and served Bangladesh loyally. Since the period of which Quader was accused was 1971 when Pakistan was united, it was natural for Pakistanis to feel perturbed.

Since Quader had taken active part in the war against India-aided rebels to defend the motherland, it was rightful on part of Munawar Hasan led JI to feel deeply grieved and take out protests and to move a resolution in the National Assembly to condemn the brutal act. Choudhri Nisar rightly said that the sad incident had reopened old wounds and opened fresh ones. Bangladesh’s complaint that Pakistan’s protests amounted to interference in its internal affairs was uncalled for since it is the right of any country or individual to raise voice against human rights violations as prescribed in UN laws. India interfered in internal affairs of Pakistan in 1971 and broke it into two. For over a decade India and host of other countries are interfering into the internal affairs of Pakistan, but Bangladesh never uttered a word of protest or sympathized with Pakistan.

Unjust hanging of frail and aged Quader has created a rumpus in Bangladesh. His last letter addressed to his wife from his death cell is heart wrenching. Islamists led by JI and BNA led by Khalida Zia are out in the streets in every city condemning the gruesome act and are battling with security forces and torching houses of government supporters. 50 people have died so far and the temperature is rising with every passing day despite tough police actions. To divert the attention, Bangladesh government staged several demonstrations against Pakistan.

Taking a dispassionate and rational view of the case, if Quader and his companions belonging to JI had extended support to the Pak Army to fight against Indian aided rebels and later against Indian Army with a view to preserve the integrity of Pakistan, what wrong they had done? Didn’t the norms of patriotism and nationalism demand loyalty to motherland? Under what moral grounds could they be treated as traitors? Was the blood of Biharis and non-Bengalis residing in former East Pakistan thinner than Bengalis? Well over 200,000 were hacked to death between 01 and 25 March 1971 and thousands of women raped. Troops remained confined to barracks in cantonments on the demand of Mujib while the bloodbath was taking place. The second cycle of bloodshed took place in November-December 1971 and the third after independence of Bangladesh. Isn’t it true that the conspiracy to make East Pakistan East Pakistan hatched by Mujib and India in Agartala in 1963? Wasn’t the military action on March 25 launched after exercising all other options to settle the issue peacefully though dialogue? How do governments deal with traitors ready to sell their country? How did Bangladesh government deal with Indian supported Chakmas and Shanti Bahini and with BDR mutineers?

Are the farcical trials meant to gain political mileage and get Hasina re-elected? Reopening of 1971 war crime trials after 42 years is a clear indication that the whole drama is politically motivated and Indian inspired to keep Bangladesh-Pakistan antagonized and to emasculate the rising power of Islamists vying to make the Bangladesh constitution Islamic and free their country from the clutches of India.          The writer is a retired Brig and a defence analyst.

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