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Seeking justice from a flawed war crimes court

Tribunal's conviction leaves questions unanswered

  • The Third Eye, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • January 24, 2013
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Many people in the country rejoiced this week as one of two special courts prosecuting alleged war criminals convicted a former leader of the largest Islamist party and sentenced him to death.

Abul Kalam Azad, a former member of Jamaat-e-Islami, was found guilty on seven of eight charges against him, including murder, rape, looting and arson, and sentenced in absentia.

The Islamic cleric who used to appear regularly on state-run and private television channels, is thought to have fled to Pakistan when the war crimes tribunal announced charges against him in April last year.

The tribunal’s verdict on Azad, announced January 21, was widely hailed in local media and celebrated by people across the country.

Such joy over the prospect of a death by hanging is understandable in part because many in the country have waited decades to receive justice for atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation from Pakistan in 1971.

The conflict saw the deaths of an estimated three million people, the rape of about 200,000 women, widespread looting and arson attacks, and the displacement of nearly 10 million people to neighboring India, according to government data.

Atrocities committed by military forces on civilian populations were widespread because they were helped by local collaborators – particularly, by members of Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed secession and saw independence and separation from Pakistan as an implicit attack on Islam.

Those tensions began with the partition of India in 1947 and have persisted ever since, causing political and economic turmoil that continues to plague Bangladeshi society and inflame religious conflict.

But the justice celebrated this week in Bangladesh is something of a mixed bag.

Since its creation three years ago, the tribunal has been criticized by rights groups for not meeting international legal standards and concerning itself with retribution rather than justice.

To date, nine party leaders from Jamaat-e-Islami and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party have been charged with war crimes, but both parties have dismissed the proceedings as unjust and politically motivated.

The nation’s ruling Awami League (AL), which led the push for independence, has made the war crimes tribunal a centerpiece of its administration.

But the AL has played more on public emotions rather than the strict demands of justice in a nation struggling to follow through on the promises that shaped its drive for independence.

Amid the outpouring of joy over this week’s verdict, one might be tempted to see progress towards a post-extremist and more democratic society, as well as a vindication of the AL’s administration under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

That would be a mistake. Much of the support for the tribunal has been linked to the tragedies of the war years that left few families untouched. Moreover, many have also seen the trials as an effort to put an end to the religious extremism that was for so long promoted by parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami.

But as continued dissention in the country over the tribunal shows, rooting out extremism is more easily hoped for than accomplished. And it is unlikely to proceed primarily from a flawed tribunal.

Until pluralism and tolerance are embraced by all members of society, Bangladesh will continue to struggle with political and sectarian conflict.

The Third Eye is the pseudonym of a journalist and commentator based in Dhaka

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