“Abdul Bari had run out of luck. Like thousands of other people in East Bengal, he had made the mistake – the fatal mistake – of running within sight of a Pakistani patrol. He was 24 years old, a slight man surrounded by soldiers. He was trembling because he was about to be shot.”
So began an article published in June 1971 that chronicled for the first time the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army and its cohorts to prevent the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Long before the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) began to evolve in the 1990s, the article by Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas in the UK’s Sunday Times turned international public opinion against Islamabad and prompted India to intervene and end the war.
On Monday, a Bangladesh tribunal delivered its first verdict, sentencing Abul Kalam Azad, a Bangladeshi Islamic cleric and former student leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, to death for crimes against humanity. Eleven other suspects are awaiting trial. Azad was found guilty in absentia on numerous charges, including genocide, murder and rape. A former TV presenter, he has been on the run since last April and is believed to be in Pakistan. As a member of the Razakar Bahini, an auxiliary force that supported the Pakistani army, Azad helped to crush local resistance in East Pakistan.
Bangladesh says Pakistani troops and their local collaborators killed three million people and raped about 200,000 women during the nine-month war. In the infamous Blood Telegram, American diplomat in Bangladesh, Archer Blood, sent a cable to the U.S. State Department criticizing the U.S. government for its failure to respond to the “genocide” being perpetuated by the Pakistani military.
The scale of the killings would normally have shaken the conscience of the international community. However, unlike the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunals instituted to try war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Bangladesh genocide has received scant international attention. This lack of awareness has persisted, even as victims’ families and human rights groups have spent decades fighting for justice.
International politics are partly to blame. Pakistani troops were let off the hook as part of a broader post-war peace deal between India and Pakistan. Moreover, the Bangladesh Liberation War occurred at the height of the Cold War when the United States, allied with Islamabad, overlooked Pakistan’s atrocities as it sought the nation’s help as a conduit to establish diplomatic ties with China.
But this is now changing thanks to the tribunals. However, these tribunals— referred to as the International Crimes Tribunal— have been controversial since their inception. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has repeatedly expressed concerns over the efficacy of the trial, saying that the law under which the accused are being tried does not meet international standards of due process. Critics, including the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, have called the trials a “farce” and see them as a witch-hunt.
The accusation is not unfounded. Zia and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are bitter political rivals and have often used state institutions to undermine one another. The Jamaat-e-Islami is an ally of the BNP, which sees the trial as an attempt by Hasina’s Awami League to undermine the BNP-Jamaat alliance.
The court’s standing received a further blow in December when Mohammed Nizamul Huq resigned as chairman of the tribunal. Nizamul left the post after being questioned by The Economist and having private emails published in Bangladesh that cast doubt on the tribunal..
Given the fractured and vindictive political climate in Bangladesh, the risks of new injustices occurring are very real. However, the conviction of a high-profile war criminal is the first tentative step towards closing a deeply haunting chapter in Bangladesh’s turbulent history. The opportunity must not be allowed to wither away.