Inside Story

Bangladesh’s war wounds

We examine the mass protests over the trials and sentencing of those accused of atrocities during 1971 independence war.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Bangladesh have been staging daily protests in the heart of the capital Dhaka.

They are demonstrating against the decisions of a war crimes tribunal that was set up to investigate those accused of abuses during Bangladesh’s so-called war of independence with Pakistan in 1971.

Since the Holocaust of the second World War, the most brutal genocide in the history of mankind took place in Bangladesh during the nine-month-long liberation war of 1971. According to the official statistics, the Pakistani occupation army and the local collaborators – mainly Jamaat-e-Islami – killed roughly 3 million unarmed people … The Pakistani occupation forces could never have committed such ruthless genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes had they not been abetted by the killing squads of [groups] formed by the Jamaat-e-Islami and their associates.

– Shahriar Kabir, protester

Some say the trials are politically motivated, and others demand no less than the death penalty for the political figures who are accused and convicted. 

The protests show how deeply Bangladesh’s bloody past still affects the present.

For more than two years, officials have been prosecuting the defendants accused of committing war crimes in 1971. The government says the trials are needed to heal “the wounds” of the war.

Earlier this month, a special tribunal hearing the case sentenced the main defendant, Abdul Quader Mollah, to life imprisonment.

Mollah, the man who is the subject of so much anger in Bangladesh, is the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic party in Bangladesh.

Supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami have opposed the war crimes tribunal.

Mollah became known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ for the atrocities he is said to have committed as a senior leader of the Razakar Force during the war.

And on February 5, he was finally convicted for five out of six charges, including mass murder and rape, and sentenced to life in prison.

But protesters say they want the death penalty, and they are asking for his sentence to be appealed.

Meanwhile the country’s ruling party has rejected accusations that the war tribunal is biased.

These are really very serious and mass scale human rights violations and the victims of these violations and the survivors do deserve justice. So we have always been calling for these trials to take place … But there is another side to this whole process and that is the people who are accused of these crimes also have their human rights and their human rights should be respected … The trial, when it takes place, [must be] fair.

– Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International

Bangladesh’s war with Pakistan was fought over East Pakistan’s desire to become independent from West Pakistan.

East Pakistan, initially called East Bengal, believed that power was concentrated in the West and felt exploited by the central government.

The two sides went to war in March 1971. And nine months later the conflict ended with the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent state of Bangladesh.

But the war continues to cast a shadow over Bangladeshis generations later, because of the number of people killed and the atrocities that were committed.

An estimated 300,000 to three million people were killed during 1971 war.

Some 200,000 women were also raped, many of them in mass rapes and some while they were imprisoned in what have been called ‘rape camps’.

To discuss Bangladesh’s war wounds, Inside Story with presenter Hazem Sika is joined by guests: Muhammad Abu Baker Molla, a barrister and spokesman for the Jamat-e-Islami group; Abbas Faiz, a senior researcher on South Asia for Amnesty International; and Shahriar Kabir, the acting president of the Forum for Secular Bangladesh, and a protester and member of the Victims of War group.