Bangladesh war trials: Justice or politics?

Many contend the war crime trials hold leaders accountable for crimes during the 1971 war, others argue it is revenge.

Many feel the trial holds leaders accountable for crimes which they had committed during the 1971 war [Reuters]

Bangladesh’s war crimes court sentenced to death a former cabinet member for atrocities committed during the country’s war of independence from Pakistan. 

Syed Mohammad Qaisar became the 15th person convicted of atrocities by Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal which found him guilty of charges including genocide, rape, extortion and torture. 

Last month, the tribunal sentenced two Islamic party leaders to death. Motiur Rahman Nizami and Mir Quasem Ali, leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami group, were convicted for crimes committed during the country’s War of Independence in 1971.

During the liberation war, the country’s largest Islamist party sided with the Pakistani military in seeking to prevent the break up of the country.

The tribunals have maintained that during the nine-month war these men led an armed militia Al Badr which was involved in numerous atrocities including the abduction and killing of 17 academics and journalists in Dhaka during the very last days of the war.

Nizami was, for example sentenced to death for his involvement in rounding up 30 unarmed villagers, including women and children in November 1971 of, and indiscriminately shooting them to death in a school field, and then subsequently killing 22 other people on the bank of Isamoti River, in the Western district of Pabna.

He was also of sentenced to death of mounting “Gestapo like attacks” in the country’s capital city of Dhaka in December 1971, just days before the surrender of the Pakistan military, by the  ‘selective elimination’ of 17 professionals and intellectuals who were dragged from their home, ‘often blindfolded, tortured, murdered and their dead bodies then dumped in mass graves’.

Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died at the hands of the Pakistani military between March to December 1971, with the Bangladesh government claiming the figure to be as high as 3 million people.

The two verdicts brings the total number of convictions to 15 in the last two years, with a total of 12 men receiving a death sentence, though so far only Abdul Quader Molla, an assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat, has been executed.

Jamaat-e-Islami, now a key member of the opposition alliance against the Awami League government, has argued that the trials represent a political vendetta against the party. 

However, polls conducted in 2013 showed that the legal process is supported by an overwhelming majority of the country with 86 percent of those polled stating they wanted trials to proceed.

When the criminal justice process in Bangladesh is riddled with corruption, torture and politicisations, and there is a general lack of due process, people wonder why there should there be any reason for concern about these particular trials.

by - Shahnaz Huda, chairman of the law department at Dhaka University

‘Meting out justice’

Some contend that the trials should be viewed as holding leaders answerable for crimes for which they had previously escaped accountability and not an act of retribution. 

In a recent article, Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the country’s leading English language newspaper The Daily Star, stated, “It is not revenge. It is not retribution. It is not settling of accounts. And politics, it is definitely not. It is meting out justice.”

“It is holding political leaders accountable for their action especially if they commit crimes against humanity. It is fulfilling an inner urge for justice and fair play. In the final analysis it is establishing the supremacy of law and humanitarian values that we have learnt to hold dear in our hearts.”

The perspective, however, sits in stark contrast with the views of international human rights organisations which have been uniformly critical of the process, though still supporting the need to hold trials.

The International Commission of Jurists has stated that the tribunal does “not adhere to international standards of a fair trial and due process” and that there are “serious procedure flaws at all stages”.

And Human Rights Watch has also said that that the conviction of Golam Azam, the head of the Jamaat in 1971, was based on “flawed proceedings”.

The International Centre for Transitional Justice also called for the current judicial proceedings to be “suspended” earlier this year pointing to issues of “fundamental unfairness”. 

Lack of criticism

Although Anam’s article refers to unwarranted “incidents” at the tribunal and the possibility of “some procedural flaws”, the issues raised by the international human rights lobby continued to be ignored.

He is not alone in this lack of interest in fair trial criticisms.

Neither of the country’s two main independent human rights organisations, Ain-o-Salish Kendra or Odhikar, have given any statement remarking on any concerns.

And the autonomous National Human Rights Commission, far from voicing any dissent, has been highly supportive of the trial process.

So, while some commentators have suggested that the trial process is dividing the country, the most notable chasm stands between supporters of the tribunal, which include the country’s human rights community and other members of wider civil society, and international human rights organisations.

Criticisms of the trials have been largely ignored in Bangladesh, with many believing that the trials are fair, preferring to accept the tribunal’s view that the law and process have ensured that the “fundamental and key elements of [a] fair trial” exist.  

Iftekaruzzaman, the Executive Director of Transparency International points out that it is in the nature of these kinds of highly charged trials dealing with international crimes that there is disagreement about issues of due process – and so the opinions of international organisations should be put in that context. 

“There is certainly questions about whether or not the international human rights organisations are being sufficiently objective or not,” Iftekaruzzaman told Al Jazeera.

“For example in relation to the death penalty, people ask why is it that the only time these organisations make statements against the death penalty involves those convicted of crimes against humanity, and not on any other cases.”

There are also those who argue that the international organisations are judging these particular trials from too high a standard.

People don't think that the alleged war criminals are being treated any worse than common criminals. So, unless the whole legal system is upgraded, people are unwilling to give special treatment for the alleged war criminals.

by - Syeed Ahmed, blogger

“When the criminal justice process in Bangladesh is riddled with corruption, torture and politicisation, and there is a general lack of due process, people wonder why there should there be any reason for concern about these particular trials,” Dr Shahnaz Huda, chairman of the law department at Dhaka University told Al Jazeera.

Syeed Ahmed, a blogger on the war crimes trials, agrees. “People don’t think that the alleged war criminals are being treated any worse than common criminals. So, unless the whole legal system is upgraded, people are unwilling to give special treatment for the alleged war criminals.” 

Manufactured outcry

There is also the view that the the fair trial criticisms are really just a cover for those who are really only interested in helping the accused escape punishment.

The sentiment has merged with scepticism about the integrity of the foreign human rights organisations themselves.

“Loud voices of human rights agencies regarding fairness of the war crimes trials has failed to create traction here because they have not made the same kind of arguments in relation to other trials in Bangladesh.” Ahmed told Al Jazeera.

For some, the issue of fair trials is simply not significant, since in the view of many, these men are known to be guilty of crimes in 1971, and who have managed till now to use their political influence to escape justice, and the sooner they are punished the better.

“People in Bangladesh ‘know’ that these men are guilty, so they do not see any reason to go through this process to try to find out whether the men are guilty of not,” Huda told Al Jazeera.

“Their guilt is so accepted by everyone, that there is no need for due process.”

This view might help explain why the same polls that suggested four-fifths of the country supported the tribunals, also showed a majority of people, 63 percent, thought that the trials were “unfair” or “very unfair”.

Ahmed also thinks that this apparently conflicting positions about the war crimes trials reflect people’s recognition that there are no better options.

“The fact that the Awami League is the only party willing and able to conduct this war crimes trial [means that people are] settling for whatever this government is offering. Four decades of rehabilitation and amnesty of war criminals have made people impatient, rejecting questionable concerns about fair trials,” he added.

While fair trial advocates argue that due process concerns should trump all these arguments, there are not many in Bangladesh who are willing to accept that their assessments should have any influence on the process itself.

Source: Al Jazeera