Inside Story

Bangladesh: Righting historical wrongs

Will addressing Bangladesh's past struggle for independence serve to heal historical wounds or just erode its stability?
Last Modified: 04 Mar 2013 15:32

A war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh is stirring up memories of the country's painful split from Pakistan in 1971, during which anywhere up to three million people are thought to have been raped, tortured and murdered.

"I think the current Awami League and its allies are bringing the country to the brink of a civil war ... you can't  run a democratic government and not let people protest things and then you fire at them .... because of the so-called war crimes trial which is under no international supervision. It is a political trial by a political party against some people who opposed the independence but they categorically deny any involvement in any of the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army."

- Salman al-Azami, son of an accused former Jamaat-e-Islam leader

It is a dark chapter in the history of the two countries, which has never been fully addressed. And now the lingering anger is playing out on the streets of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, with days of rioting, soldiers on the streets, calls for a national strike - and a rising death toll.

Members of the Islamic opposition Jamaat-e-Islami are on trial, and potentially facing the death sentence. The party had campaigned against independence from Pakistan, but deny committing any atrocities during the war.

The nine-month long war was the climax of tensions between Bangladeshi nationalists and the Pakistani army. Eventually the Indian army intervened on the side of the Bangladeshi nationalists.

Bangladesh says three million people were killed during the conflict; Pakistan says the number was much lower.

In the four decades since the war, the country's turbulent politics and repeated military coups have stood in the way of the delivery of justice. But when the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, won the 2008 national elections, setting up a war crimes tribunal was a large part of its campaign.

"It is nothing but a fabrication that these people [the Awami League] were involved in crimes against humanity in 1971. It is a ploy to divert people's attention from what happened in Bangladesh. People in Bangladesh want war criminals tried. To create chaos in the country in the name of politics is a very sinister move."

- Tridib Deb, the Bangabandhu Lawyers Council

Established in 2010, the tribunal is trying 12 men for crimes against humanity. That they are mostly from Jamaat-e-Islami, which is strongly opposed to Hasina’s government, has drawn accusations that the trials are a politically convenient way of getting rid of opposition leaders.

The tribunal has been plagued by accusations of foul play and government influence, but the country's opinion is divided. When Abdul Qader Molla, one of the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, was sentenced to life in prison rather than death, hundreds of thousands of people protested to demand that he be hanged.

But last week's announcement that another Jamaat-e-Islami leader will be executed, led to further protests - this time by supporters of those on trial.

As more sentences are announced, the violence is likely to continue.

So, why are these trials taking place now? Can the country right these historical wrongs - and at what cost to its unity?

Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, speaks to: Salman al-Azami, the son of former Jamaat-e-Islam leader Ghulum Azam, who is one of those standing trial; and Tridib Deb, the co-chairman of the Bangabandhu Lawyers Council, a group named after the former head of the Awami League and first president of Bangladesh, and father of the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.


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