Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum sits on a quiet street in central Dhaka, shaded by trees and fronted by an austere barbed wire fence. The small building commemorates the country’s 1971 liberation struggle, a fierce war of independence from Pakistan that cost an estimated 3 million lives. An eternal flame in the museum’s courtyard marks it out as a site of martyrdom—a reminder of the bloody star under which the country was born. Almost fittingly, dozens of small Bangladeshi flags are intertwined on the rusting barbs of the museum’s front fence.
Last week, Bangladesh’s government arrested two leading politicians from the country’s main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, on charges of committing mass murder during the liberation struggle. The arrests, which followed the detention of the party’s president, Motiur Rahman Nizami, and other top Jamaat officials in late June, mark the first stage of a tribunal established in March to address war crimes committed during the 1971 conflict.
But even though the tribunal has no scheduled start date, it has already whipped up controversy in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which was elected in a landslide in 2008 in part on promises of a trial, says it has evidence proving the involvement of senior Jamaat members in the 1971 atrocities. Critics, however, say the tribunal is being used to settle domestic political disputes and runs the risk of unleashing social chaos and compromising Dhaka’s relationship with Muslim allies in the Middle East.
The tribunal comes after nearly four decades of inaction in Bangladesh. The 1971 conflagration, which erupted when Pakistan attempted to prevent the secession of its eastern wing, included the systematic execution of leading Bengali intellectuals and the rape of by some estimates 200,000 women. Although the process of putting collaborators on trial began after the defeat of the Pakistani army on December 16, 1971, the tribunal process was derailed after the assassination of independence icon Sheik Mujibur Rahman in August 1975. Ahmed Ziauddin, an advisor to Bangladeshi rights group Odhikar, says that for the following three decades, a succession of military administrations has swept aside all attempts at justice, fearing it could implicate many within their own ranks.
‘The current process is, if you like, unfinished business that started in 1972,’ he says.
Mahbub Alam, general manager of the Liberation War Museum, says that even though 40 years have passed and many perpetrators are long dead, there’s a widespread desire to see responsible politicians brought to justice. ‘The people who did all these kinds of misdeeds are the beneficiaries of the creation of Bangladesh,’ says Alam, who lost his father in the Liberation War. ‘Why are war criminals in power? They are the beneficiaries of the country, of three million martyrs.’
Given the political difficulties involved in trying to extradite former military officers still living in Pakistan, the government is instead focusing on the razakars—internal collaborators who led, assisted and committed crimes in conjunction with the Pakistani administration then in control of the country. For the moment, the attention is falling squarely on Jamaat and its allies.