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War crimes tribunal divides country

A long road to justice for Bangladesh tribunal

A Jamaat leader is escorted by police following a hearing at the International Criminal Tribunal in Dhaka A Jamaat leader is escorted by police following a hearing at the International Criminal Tribunal in Dhaka
  • ucanews.com reporter, Dhaka
  • Bangladesh
  • August 17, 2012
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More than four decades have passed since Bangladesh fought and won its independence from Pakistan in a bloody conflict that left the country scarred and divided.

In an effort to bring justice and reconciliation to the fractured country, the ruling Awami League – whose leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the fight for independence and served as Bangladesh’s first prime minister before his assassination by army officers in 1975 – established the International Crimes Tribunal in 2010.

The tribunal was first proposed in the ICT Act of 1973 and tasked with arresting and prosecuting those who collaborated with or aided the Pakistan army in its effort to put down the Bengali nationalist movement. However, the ICT languished without rules of procedure or action until 2010.

The ICT became the centerpiece of political pledges by the Awami League in the lead-up to national elections in 2008, in which it won 263 of 300 constituencies. Since then it has arrested nine suspects accused of war crimes, mass rape and crimes against humanity,

An estimated 3 million people died at the hands of the Pakistan army and its collaborators, rape was widespread, and 10 million people fled to India during the nine-month struggle in 1971.

But though the alleged atrocities committed by the Pakistan army and its proxies rise to the level of better-known incidents in Rwanda and Cambodia, the tribunal has garnered only minor interest internationally.

Survivors of the conflict say that collaborators, mostly Islamic political party leaders and activists trying to save a unified and Islamic Pakistan,  targeted thousands of Bengali intellectuals in an attempt to cripple the nation even if it won its freedom.

Shyamoli Nasrin Chowdhury, a social worker, lost her husband Dr. Aleem Chowdhury during the war.

“My husband was on a hit list of local collaborators and was arrested just a few days before the war ended,” she said. “His dead body, along with those of several hundred other prominent intellectuals including journalists, teachers, doctors and engineers, was found on the outskirts of Dhaka."

Chowdhury says the successful prosecution of war criminals by the ICT is vital to survivors and the nation at large in putting the decades of hardship behind them.

“I want justice for the killing of my husband,” Chowdhury said.

Nazma Begum says she was among an estimated hundreds of thousands of women who suffered sexual and physical abuse during the war.

“Like many women…I was handed over to the Pakistan army by local ‘razakars’ [traitors] and was raped repeatedly,” she said. “When we asked for drinking water, they gave us urine.”

She said after the war, women who were sexually abused were shunned by society for “losing their honor” and were left to fend for themselves.

The ICT has so far arrested nine suspects – two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and seven from Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party, and taken testimony from 20 witnesses for the prosecution against one defendant.

The court is expected to convene next on August 26, according to ICT public prosecutor Rana Dasgupta, who added that the trial of up to five defendants was expected to conclude by December, with the remaining cases tried by March next year.

The BNP and Jamaat have consistently opposed the ICT and dismissed accusations that their leaders were involved with war crimes, saying that the prosecution of party members is merely a bid by the ruling Awami League to destroy its political opposition.

According to one Jamaat party leader, the ICT is nothing more than a political tool and the trials a “farce.”

“The accusations against Jamaat leaders are 100 percent false and none [of the allegations] has been proved so far,” said A.K.M. Nazir Ahmed.

M.K. Anwar, a former BNP minister and now a central party leader, says that if the government was serious about trying war criminals it should have prosecuted 195 Pakistan army officers that were repatriated after the war.

“We are not against a war crimes trial, but we want to see a fair trial,” said Anwar.

“The tribunal lacks international standards and will not deliver right judgments. It is being used to unleash political vengeance by the Awami League, which we cannot accept.”

He added that the BNP is preparing to launch a movement against the government on the issue following the end of the Eid festival this month.

But prosecutor Rana Dasgupta said the tribunal has more than enough evidence and witnesses to prove charges against the nine suspects currently facing prosecution, and that the proceedings will be professional, fair and transparent.

“Every trial is based on evidence and the defendants are given equal opportunity for a legal fight,” Dasgupta said. “Jamaat and BNP have [criticized] the trials, calling them a “political agenda,” but it is in fact a longstanding public demand, and we hope to fulfill it by next year.”

Shahriar Kabir, a journalist, filmmaker and rights activist, says he has campaigned for years for the prosecution of war criminals and for the establishment of Bangladesh as a secular and liberal state.

Since the 1990s he has worked for the Committee for Secular Bangladesh and Trials of 1971 War Criminals, along with the late Jahanara Imam, popularly known as “Mother of Martyr.” One of her sons was a guerrilla fighter killed during the war.

Kabir recently produced a documentary that includes accounts of war crimes allegedly committed by suspects currently in ICT custody.

He says a great deal of misinformation has been spread by those opposed to the ICT, particularly within the BNP, in what he calls a conspiracy to scuttle the proceedings.

“The war crimes trials conform to international standards, but it faces many challenges and conspiracies. Jamaat and its ally the BNP have spent millions of dollars on international lobbyists and are deliberately spreading falsehoods and half-truths about the trials,” Kabir said.

He added that the structure of the ICT itself has posed a major obstacle to efficiency.

“The prosecution is slowed down by a lack of manpower,” he said, adding that prosecutors and officials currently serving in the ICT are also engaged with other litigation.

The government also has yet to formulate a law to protect witnesses, many of whom have been threatened by Jamaat cadres, Kabir said.

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