How not to do a war crimes tribunal: the case of Bangladesh

The promising start of the tribunals, once thought to bring closure to people, has devolved into power politics.

Bangladesh is deeply divided politically and socially over the tribunals [Reuters]

Bangladesh needed a war crimes tribunal badly.

For many people who had lost their near and dear ones during the bloody birth of the nation, the scars were too deep to let go so easily. It was aggravated by the fact that the 195 Pakistani military officials primarily accused of genocide were never tried. It was further compounded by the fact that the key collaborators of the war crimes were eventually mainstreamed into national politics and even served as ministers during the regime of current opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The issue of justice for 1971 has long been a contentious one in Bangladeshi politics. Many believed that Bangladesh needed a meaningful closure to the trauma of the past in order to move forward. 

A war crimes tribunal to bring the collaborators to justice was thought to be one of the key steps in that direction. It was in the election manifesto of the ruling party – a promise that motivated a lot of young people to vote for them.

Hijacked revolution

However, two years into the process, many now believe the tribunal to be vulnerable to outside interventions in an attempt to convert the case into a political weapon for the ruling party. This, together with the resultant violence that ravaged the country, have now left a lot of people confused and wondering what they were fighting for in the first place.

The movement which clearly was anti-establishment in nature, very soon played into the hands of the political parties.

At the same time, the controversies have also given rise to a group of hard core Bengali nationalists who are willing to turn a blind eye to the systematic corruption and manipulation of the election system to secure another term for The Awami League (AL). As they are aware, the tribunal might get dismantled and the accused freed if the opposition BNP and its ally Jamat-e-Islami ascend to power – a possibility they are not willing to accept. 

In such a situation, the lines between politics, judiciary, election and justice are increasingly getting blurred. The whole population now appears to be ideologically divided into two distinct camps – for and against the tribunal.

It all looked distinctly different back in February.

The urban youth gathered in Shahbag square to protest against the verdict awarded to Kader Mollah, one of the key accused. They thought the verdict – life imprisonment, which they considered to be too lenient – indicated that the government may be conducting secret negotiations with Jamat-e-Islami. It appeared, apart from a handful of hard core Jamat-e-Islami supporters, that there was a broad unanimity in Bangladesh about bringing the war criminals to justice.

The movement which clearly was anti-establishment in nature, very soon played into the hands of the political parties.

Though water bottles were hurled at government ministers who tried to gain entrance to the centre-stage in the first few days, the ruling party found a way to infiltrate the movement with the assistance of some faithful party cultural figureheads in no time and started dictating its agenda. The crowd started dispersing.

When the Awami captured Shahbag, BNP opposed it. Mahmudur Rahman, the firebrand editor of the national daily, The Amar Desh [Be], led the way to label the movement as one against Islam, organised by atheists.

Subsequent events led to the emergence of Hefajot-e-Islam, a religious group formed by madrassas scholars in protest against the defamation of the prophet – written by a slain blogger who was an activist in the Shahbag movement. 

Divided opinions

Bangladesh witnessed further bloodshed across the country in which more than 400 lives were lost and it swung from crisis to crisis leading up to this month when the tenure of the Awami government ended and it refused to hand over power to a caretaker government citing a constitutional requirement, bringing another set of violent conflicts with the opposition and its allies.

Last week, Kader Mollah was executed after his appeal was turned down by the country’s Supreme Court.

Jamat-e-Islami claims that there are a number of inconsistencies in the judgement of Kader Mollah and other trials. Few doubt the involvement of Jamat-E-Islam in the genocide that took place in 1971. However, many are now unwilling to side with the government in what they believe to be a systematic targeting of top tier leadership of Jamat-e-Islami in exclusion of some of the Awami leaders that have been accused of being collaborators as well.

Public opinion has also been influenced by the revelations of irregularities through the hacking of a Skype account of one of the judges and the eagerness of the Awami to divide the electorate into pro and anti-liberation forces based on their support of the Awami League. 

To many people, the timing of the execution and alacrity in its proceedings indicate the government’s willingness to use the tribunal for political gains. The exigency was interpreted as the government’s need to have at least one execution before the election.

The Awami league is preparing for an election which the chief opposition party deems too partisan to participate in;151 AL nominees have already been “elected” without a single vote being cast. Meanwhile, a series of countrywide blockades imposed by the opposition is disrupting the country’s entire economy due to the limited flow of goods. About 150 lives have been lost in last two months in ensuing violence.

Support for Jamat-e-Islami still comes with a stigma in the country, especially in the urban middle class population. But, if you follow the comments section below articles of the leading media – you will find Jamat-e-Islami is making a stunning comeback by accumulating sympathy. The alleged irregularities of the trial and public perception of it seem to have turned the party into a victim, from a party which was always considered a pariah and one with blood in its hands.

Yet a large number of the population will object to this view. For them Jamat-e-Islami and its leaders are known war criminals who need to be punished at any cost. They have a valid argument which must be judged against the particular context of Bangladesh.

The collective mind-set and cultural values have certain homogeneousness which has protected this society from any major conflicts, apart from the ones delivered by feudal party politics.

Procedural flaws

The country’s judiciary has been politicised since its inception. Jamat-e-Islami and its leadership have had ample chances to hide their criminal tracks, especially as they have been in power through an alliance. Lack of documentation makes it quite difficult to conclusively incriminate anyone after 42 years. Many of the witnesses have now passed away. But, the stories of the crimes have carried on for generations and many were reported in the media, years after the war. Hence, the trial has to depend on circumstantial evidence and sole witnesses or witnesses who were very young at the time the crimes took place.

Under such circumstances, some of the most ardent supporters of the tribunal might find it justifiable to bend the rules. It might appal a law student, but this is a country where most people give whole-hearted support to the extra-judicial killings of top criminals as they know the criminals would otherwise escape justice by securing bail from the court where it is very common for a case to be unresolved for 20 years.

Therefore, we see people who consider the atrocities too severe to be forgiven and want nothing but death penalty for the accused war criminals to redeem the collective national shame of letting them avoid punishment this long.

As mentioned above, a big part of the population seems to be disagreeing with this viewpoint. Not because they consider procedural flaws to be the ultimate sin for a Bangladeshi court, but because they are disgruntled about the government’s attempt to use the war crimes tribunal to cover up heavy corruption and the systematic looting of national wealth. In the meantime, supporters of Jamat-e-Islam maintain that their leaders are being tried only because of their support of Islamist politics.

The country appears to be deeply divided and this division has now transcended politics and descended into society, aided by the media.

The media, which mostly constitutes the culturally educated urbanites, are vociferously taking a side against the alleged war criminals. They are also conveniently ignoring the instances of shooting on the protesters by law enforcement agencies.They are choosing to ignore the multiple dynamics of the debate that is ravaging the country.   

Apart from a small number of indigenous peoples living in hill tracts, Bangladesh is a country of a single race, the Bengalis. The collective mind-set and cultural values have certain homogeneousness which has protected this society from any major conflicts, apart from the ones delivered by feudal party politics. But, that is now set to change.

Many people believed the war crimes tribunal will allow the country to get rid of the ghosts of the past. But it now appears the willingness to use the tribunal as a political tool has created a chasm among the population. The attempt at getting rid of the ghost may haunt the country for many years to come.

Zia Hassan is a political and cultural analyst. He writes in local and international blogs and social media outlets.