BANGLADESH: Justice in Jeopardy
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
Since it took charge on January 6, 2009, the Awami League (AL) led coalition Government in Bangladesh, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, has embarked on the arduous and grueling road of War Crime Trials (WCT) for atrocities committed during the Liberation War of March 25-December 16, 1971, as promised in its “Charter for Change” in its 2008 Election Manifesto. The WCT process has now reached a crucial juncture, with the indictment, on June 21, 2012, of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, the latest among the “erroneous eight” – the most prominent offenders – on charges of war crime.
The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), established on March 25, 2010, has so far indicted eight high-profile political figures, including six JeI leaders – Nayeb-e-Ameer (Deputy Chief) Delawar Hossain Sayeedi (on October 3, 2011); former JeI chief Golam Azam (on May 13, 2012); present JeI chief Motiur Rahman Nizami (on May 28, 2012); JeI General Secretary Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed (on June 21, 2012); JeI assistant secretaries Mohammed Quamaruzzaman (on June 4, 2012); and Quader Mollah (on May 28, 2012); as well as two Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) political figures and lawmakers – Salauddin Quader Chowdhury (on April 4, 2012) and Abdul Alim (on June 11, 2012).
20 charges including genocide and crime against humanity, have been framed against Delawar Hossain Sayeedi. According to one charge, on May 4, 1971, Sayeedi, as a member of a group of individuals as well as a member of a ‘Peace Committee’, gave secret information to the Pakistan Army about the gathering of some people behind the Madhya Masimpur bus-stand under Pirojpur Sadar Police Station in Pirojpur District. After the arrival of Pakistani Army troops, he took them to the back of the Madhya Masimpur bus stand and, in a planned way, killed 20 unnamed civilians by firing. He was also charged for the capture of 14 Hindus in the Hindu Para area of Parerhat Bazar under Pirozpur Sadar Police Station and handing them over to the Pakistani Army, who later killed them.
Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, the second to be indicted, faces 23 charges of killing. In one case, Chowdhury and his accomplices, on April 13, 1971, led a group of Pakistani soldiers to Unsatter Para under the Rowjan Police Station in Chittagong District, where they brought the local Hindu people to the bank of a pond behind the house of Khitish Mohajan, after which 70 persons were killed in indiscriminate firing in Chowdhury’s presence. 50 of the victims were identified. Similarly, on April 20, 1971, the Pakistani Army and the Razakars on the direction of Salauddin and his father Fazlul Qader Chowdhury, jointly attacked Sakhpura village under Boalkhali Police Station in Chittagong District, firing indiscriminately and using bayonets to kill people who had political and religious difference with them. As the villagers took shelter in the nearby forest and paddy field, they were chased and killed. An unspecified number of persons were killed, of which 76 were identified. On June 7, 1971, one Omar Faruk was kidnapped from Jamal Khan Road by Salauddin, his father and Razakar Maksudur Rahman, with the help of Pakistan Army personnel, and was taken to the Goods Hill torture centre, which was under the control of Salauddin and his father. Omar was tortured and subsequently killed on Salauddin’s order.
Golam Azam has been indicted on five charges (murder and torture of unarmed people, conspiracy, planning, incitement and complicity to commit genocide). According to the prosecution, Ghulam Azam, who was the then Ameer (chief) of JeI (East Pakistan) and a central leader of the ‘Peace Committee’, in an ‘official letter’ ordered the killing of a Police officer Siru Miah and his son, as they were freedom fighters. The charge sheet stated that, under Azam’s direct instruction, Siru Miah, Anwar Kamal, Nazrul Islam, and Abul Kashem were killed, along with another 34 persons, in Pourotola area of Brahmanbaria District. Anwar Kamal was tortured before his execution.
Motiur Rahman Nizami was indicted on 16 charges including murder and torture of unarmed people. In one case, on April 16, 1971, with Nizami’s help, Nizami’s associates and Pakistan Army personnel attacked Arpara and Vutergari villages under the Ishwardi Police Station in Pabna District and killed 21 unarmed civilians. Again, on November 27, 1971, Nizami, along with Razakars and Pakistan Army troopers, raided the house of Dr. Abdul Awal and other adjacent houses in the Dhulaura Village (Pabna District) on the pretext of searching out freedom-fighters. Along with his accomplices, Nizami got hold of a number of men, women and children, and brought them to the Dhulaura School field, where 30 people were shot dead. After departure of Pakistani Army forces, Nizami and his Razakars caught another 22 unarmed persons, took them to the bank of river Isamoti, and had them bayoneted to death.
The next to be indicted was Quader Mollah with six charges of murder and mass killing, including the incident of March 27, 1971, when he and his aides murdered the pro-liberation poet Meherun Nesa, her mother and two brothers, at their house at Mirpur-6, Mirpur District. Again, on November 25, 1971, he and his gang killed ‘hundreds’ of unarmed people of Khanbari and Ghotan Char villages, of which, 24 persons have been identified. Earlier, on April 24, 1971, he led members of Pakistan Army to the Alubdi village of Mirpur, where 344 unarmed persons were then killed.
Mohammed Quamaruzzaman has been indicted on seven charges of genocide. In one case, on July 25, 1971, Qamaruzzaman and his accomplices killed 120 men and raped 170 women at Sohagpur, a village in Nalitabari in Sherpur District. The village later became known as the “Widows’ Village”. Quamaruzzaman also faces the charge of torturing and killing Golam Mostafa Talukder, a freedom fighter from Sherpur. On return from India, where he was trained to fight for the independence of Bangladesh, Talukder was abducted from Sherpur College Intersection, on August 23, 1971. Later, he was taken to the house of Surendra Mohan Saha, which was used as an Al-Badr Camp, where he was brutally tortured and shot to death. Quamaruzzaman was also indicted for forcing Sherpur College teacher Syed Abdul Hannan to walk almost naked on the roads of Sherpur town.
Abdul Alim, has been charged in 17 cases of genocide, murder and burying people alive. On April 26, 1971, Alim, the then local ‘Peace Committee’ chairman, accompanied by other members of the committee and Pakistani Army personnel, launched a surprise attack on Hindus in Korai and Kadipur localities of Joypurhat District, resulting in damage to property, looting and arson, thereby created havoc. Subsequently, Alim and his accomplices brought the Hindu civilians out of their homes, lined them up and shot dead 370 of them. In May, 1971, Abdul Alim accompanied by Pakistan Army Major Afzal and other accomplices arranged a meeting at Uttarhat Shahor under Khetlal and delivered a provocative speech that triggered the looting of assets of the Hindus. After Alim’s incitement, members of the ‘Peace Committee’, the Razakars and Pakistani Army personnel attacked the Hindu-dominated neighbourhoods of Uttarhat Shahor, Harunjahat and surrounding areas, and apprehended 10 Hindus, who were later killed on Alim's orders. Alim, along with ‘Peace Committee’ members, Pakistani troops, Razakarss and Major Afzal, posed for a photograph at an open site on the west of Joypurhat Railway Station, with 26 detainees, suspected to be freedom-fighter. The photo shows arms laid out in front of them. Thereafter, Alim consulted with Major Afzal, following which the 26 detainees were taken to Joypurhat College and killed.
The ICT indicted Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed on 32 charges of abduction, killing of intellectuals, murder, arson attacks, torture, persecution and abetment. Mojaheed, along with his associates and Pakistan Army personnel, attacked three villages – Majhidangi, Baidyadangi and Balidangi – under the Charbhadrason Police Station, in his home District Faridpur in May in 1971, killed 50 to 60 Hindus, and set ablaze 300 to 350 houses. Mojaheed was also the mastermind behind the systematic extermination of Bengali intellectuals, including noted journalist Sirajuddin Hossian, the then executive editor of the Daily Ittefaq, who was abducted by Mohaheed’s accomplices from his rented house at Chamelibagh in Dhaka city, and later believed to have been murdered (his body was never recovered). Music composer Altaf Mahmud was also abducted from Outer Circular Road in the capital and later on murdered at the Old MP Hostel in Nakhalpara area of Dhaka City.
If proved guilty the accused could be sentenced to death under the law. All the accused have pleaded “not guilty”.
In order to hasten the trial process so that it is completed within the present tenure of the AL Government, a second bench, ICT-2, was constituted on March 22, 2012. Daily Star, on March 26, 2012, observed, “Since the beginning of the trial of war crimes in 2010, many political parties and organisations had been demanding speeding up of the trial of war criminals”.
However, though the legal processes continue, those who opposed Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and now oppose the WCT process, are gaining confidence that the trials will come to a halt with a change in the regime after the General Elections of 2013. Both BNP and JeI have dismissed the ICT as a “show trial”. Accordingly, in a tactical response to the ongoing trials, BNP is trying to gather support against the AL Government, so that the remaining 14 months before the Elections are handed over to a Caretaker Government. On June 25, 2012, BNP acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir stated, "BNP in no way will accept the next national election except under a caretaker government….The ruling party is hatching conspiracy to hold the next polls under the grand alliance Government so that it can stay in power by manipulating the polls.” He asserted, further, “BNP and the people of the country will not allow the next polls under any party government."
Unsurprisingly, a panic-stricken JeI, with its top leaders chargesheeted and jailed, has joined forces with the BNP, expressing vociferous support for the WCT accused. The JeI has also appealed to its Islamist ideological base, with Golam Parwar, JeI’s Assistant Secretary General, claiming, on June 1, 2012, that the Government was using the WCT to suppress Jamaat supporters, having failed to face the largest Islamic political party ideologically. He cautioned that the Government’s efforts would prove abortive.
The BNP-JeI combine have also sought to draw international attention to the WCTs, and have mobilized international human rights groups, who have called on the Bangladesh Government to ensure that the tribunal is ‘free and impartial’. New York based Human Rights Watch has asked for changes to the Tribunal and its processes, including provisions allowing the accused to question its impartiality, which current law prohibits. The trial proceedings, so far, have maintained an ample measure of transparency, though questions have been raised about the credibility of some witnesses produced by the prosecution.
Amnesty International has also raised the issue of the right to challenge the jurisdiction of the tribunal. Amnesty’s Annual Report of 2011 noted, "Its (ICT) amended Rules of Procedure provided for bail, presumption of innocence before guilt is proven, and measures to ensure the protection of witnesses and victims. However, a constitutional ban on the right to challenge the jurisdiction of the Tribunal remained in force”.
In Bangladesh’s polarized politics, the entire subject of war crimes has morphed from a question of long-delayed justice, into a partisan political confrontation between the two principal and warring parties – AL and BNP. As a result, the intensity and vigor of public support has been lacking. Indeed, decades of truncating Bangladeshi history in the country’s school curricula, to exclude all reference to War Crimes during the struggle of Independence, have created a new generation that has no more than a vague and incoherent idea of the events of 1971, and the enormous brutality, not only of the Pakistan Army, but also of collaborators, which resulted in the slaughter of an estimated three million people and the rape of some 200,000 women. Some 10 million people from then East Pakistan were forced across the international border, and took refuge in India. However, the distortion and abuse of history by the military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, deepened further during the tenures of the BNP-led Governments, has done much to wipe out the enormity of the crimes committed during the Liberation War of 1971.
The UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) Report (1981), published on the occasion of the 33rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, noted that the genocide committed in Bangladesh in 1971 was the worst in history, as stated in the “Report on the Findings of the People’s Inquiry Commission on the Atrocities of the War Criminals and the Collaborators”, of March 26, 1994. The UNHRC report observed that, even if a lower estimate of 1.5 million deaths was accepted, killings took place at a rate between 6 and 12 thousand per day, through 267 days of carnage.
There is a concerted effort, today, to stall or delay the WCT proceedings, and a rising apprehension that, if these do not lead to a conclusion before the next general election, the entire process will prove to have been a waste, as a focused and desperate JeI-BNP does everything in its power to undermine, delay, and eventually disband and destroy the Tribunals, restoring a criminal combine, many of whose members participated and collaborated in the genocide and atrocities of 1971, to power in Bangladesh. Such an eventuality would potentially eliminate all future hope of bringing the guilty to justice.