Four decades after Bangladesh won its independence in a bloody war, trials for war crimes are re-opening the wounds of that bitter conflict in a poor but proud nation deeply polarised by politics.
Bangladesh says 2.5 to 3 million people died during the eight months of the 1971 war against Pakistan, and that 250,000 women were raped by Pakistani troops and supporting militias.
“That makes it one of the bloodiest civil wars of our times. So many have been crying for justice so long,” said Haroon Habib, a journalist and writer. He believes a clash is inevitable between the Awami League, a party that envisions a “secular Bangladesh”, and the Jamaat-e-Islami, which he describes as “Islamist” and “pro-Pakistani”.
On Tuesday, a tribunal handed down a life sentence to Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which supported the cause of undivided Pakistan and joined the war against Bengali nationalists fighting for independence in 1971.
Most of those in militias supporting the Pakistani forces were activists with Jamaat-e-Islami, and many were accused of horrendous crimes like mass murder, rape and arson.
Molla was charged on six counts of mass murder, rape, arson and other crimes during the war. According to the charge sheet placed by the prosecution in the trials, 344 people died in one mass murder ordered by Molla in Mirpur village.
Too little, too late?
War crimes victims seek justice in Bangladesh
But for the ruling coalition led by the Awami League, which led the movement for Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the punishment for Molla was too little, too late.
“This goes against the people’s expectation. They had expected a harsher punishment,” said Bangladesh’s junior law minister, Qamrul Islam, of the Awami League.
His senior colleague, law minister Shafique Ahmed said “the prosecution can appeal against the verdict if they want”.
Jamaat’s defence lawyer Abdur Razzaq said he will appeal against the verdict because the charges against Molla “had not been established conclusively”.
On January 21, another tribunal handed down a death sentence to another former Jamaat leader, Abul Kalam Azad – also known as Bachchu Razakar.
Azad is now believed to hiding in Pakistan. Bangladesh home minister M K Alamgir has said his government knows about Azad’s latest whereabouts and efforts to bring him to face execution are ongoing.
“Since the charges against Molla were much the same and they were mostly proven, he should have also got a death sentence,” said Masudur Rehman, who fought as a guerrilla in the “Mukti Fauj” (Liberation Army) against Pakistani forces.
Sensing that Molla, one of its top leaders, could have ended up on the gallows, the Jamaat-e-Islami threatened last week to start “non-stop strikes” if he were sentenced to death. It called a nationwide strike on Tuesday in anticipation of the verdict, less than a week after another nationwide strike supporting the repeal of the war crimes tribunals and the release from prison of all its leaders now on the dock.
The Jamaat-sponsored strikes have been marked by considerable violence, especially against the police. Hundreds of Jamaat activists have been charged with criminal offences, quite a few have been nabbed, and many are still on the run.
Nine top Jamaat leaders, including its former chief Ghulam Azam and current chief Motiur Rehman Nizami, are standing trial in the two war crimes tribunals for alleged crimes against humanity. Two leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are also on dock.
Jamaat’s acting secretary general, Rafiqul Islam Khan, described the war crimes trials as “nothing but pursuit of vendetta” by the Awami League government.
“The government has a clear blueprint. It wants to finish our organisation. But we will not allow that to happen,” Khan said on Tuesday.
He said his party has called a nationwide strike on Wednesday to protest against the life sentence handed down to Molla. He added that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government was aiming at an “one-party dictatorship” opposed to the existence of a credible opposition.
“The BNP has many freedom fighters in their ranks who detest the Jamaat’s brand of religious politics.”
– Sabyasachi Basu Ray Choudhuri, analyst
The BNP is the country’s main opposition party, and the Jamaat has been its ally. Both were part of the ruling coalition that ran Bangladesh between 2001-2006.
But although BNP chief Khaleda Zia has described the war crimes trials as a “sheer farce”, it is unwilling to support the Jamaat’s demand for repeal of the tribunals.
“The BNP has many freedom fighters in their ranks who detest the Jamaat’s brand of religious politics. So they want their leadership to distance themselves from the Jamaat on the war crimes issue,” said analyst Sabyasachi Basu Ray Choudhuri.
He said the Awami League is trying to whip up Bengali nationalist passions to embarrass the BNP as it presses for a caretaker administration to supervise Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections due this year.
“If the passions of 1971 rise, it will boost the spirit of Bengali nationalism and that will help the Awami League beat the anti-incumbency mood against its government,” said Ray Choudhuri.
But the war crimes tribunals have been criticised for lack of international oversight, lack of fairness and transparency, and pandering to a desire for revenge against the opposition.
On the day the tribunal pronounced its maiden verdict – a death sentence – against Abul Kalam Azad, the US State Department issued a statement calling for “maintaining global standards” during the trials.
The statement stressed the need for fairness and transperancy during the trials, though it supported the need to bring to justice those who committed crimes in 1971.
Bangladesh’s Awami League government reacted sharply, reminding its people of the support the US gave to Pakistan during the war.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told a briefing of foreign diplomats after the verdict against Azad that the two war crimes tribunals – one set up in 2010, the other in 2012 – have been set up per law as independent, open and transparent courts.
“The ongoing trials of the accused persons are being conducted in open tribunals witnessed by relatives of the accused, the media and independent observers to ensure full transperancy to meet the requirements of fair trial in compliance with the standards invoked in trials of international crimes,” she said.
But the tribunals were embroiled in considerable controversy when Justice Nizamul Huq, who headed one of the tribunals, resigned after media reports exposed his Skype conversation with a Belgium-based legal expert Ahmed Ziauddin, who is not connected to the tribunals. Both the tribunals had to be subsequently reconstituted.
The Jamaat defence lawyers have repeatedly alleged that the judges in the tribunals are in collusion with the prosecution, a charge the judges and the government stridently deny.
“There are many in the BNP who dislike the Jamaat, but there is no way the BNP can win a parliament election without the Jamaat.”
– Shamsul Arefin, author of Bangladesh Elections
But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appears unfazed.
Immediately after the life sentence to Abdul Quader Molla and the Jamaat’s threat of “non-stop strikes”, she issued a stern warning to the Islamist leaders.
“If you prolong this campaign of violence to stop the war crimes trials, you can face very severe consequences,” she said at the northern town of Rangpur.
With parliament elections barely a year away, Hasina stands to gain by decimating the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose share of the popular vote has never crossed into the double digits but without whose support the BNP can never hope to beat the formidable Awami League in the elections.
“That is the political arithmetic of Bangladesh. There are many in the BNP who dislike the Jamaat, but there is no way the BNP can win a parliament election without the Jamaat,” said Shamsul Arefin, author of Bangladesh Elections.
The trials themselves could help to assuage tens of thousands who lost relatives and friends during the war, and give them the feeling of justice delayed, but not denied. The trials could also help the Awani League politically.
Yet they could also re-open the wounds of history, that could lead to much settling of scores with adverse impact on the country’s social stability and its buoyant economy.