A special war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh that is seeking to bring to justice those responsible for atrocities during the 1971 liberation war is itself in the dock. The tribunal is being accused of political motivation and bias, and criticized for failing to meet international standards of due process and fair trial.
Set up in 2010 by the present Awami League (AL) government, Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) is mandated to investigate and prosecute Bangladeshi nationals who collaborated with the Pakistan military regime during the liberation war.
How many people died during the nine-month war is disputed but official estimates put the figure at over three million people killed (East Pakistan’s total population at that time was around 70 million) and hundreds of thousands of women raped. The victims were mainly pro-independence Bangladeshi nationalists, secular intellectuals and Hindus.
Local collaborators, mainly the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the armed militias it set up such as the Razakars, al-Badr and al-Shams facilitated the horrific violence – noted Bangladeshi journalist Haroon Habib describes it as "one of the worst genocides of the 20th century" – the Pakistan military unleashed to prevent East Pakistan from breaking away.
With the end of the war, the AL, which led Bangladesh to freedom, took quick steps to bring to justice those who participated in the genocide. In 1973, its government enacted the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act (ICTA), 1973, which provided for "the detention, prosecution and punishment of persons for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other crimes under international law.” However, these efforts at ensuring accountability ran aground with the ouster in 1975 of the AL government in a military coup. Subsequent regimes disbanded the tribunals, released all those detained and convicted, and rehabilitated the banned JI.
With official trials of war criminals put on ice, some efforts at unofficial transitional justice were made between 1975 and 2008. In 1992, for instance, a Peoples’ Tribunal conducted a mock trial of several Bangladeshi war criminals, “convicting” them in absentia and sentencing them to death.
It was with the return of the AL to power in December 2008 that the official effort to bring the war criminals to justice was revived. The process was set in motion in 2009 with the amendment of the ICTA, 1973, paving the way for the setting up of the ICT in 2010. A second court was set up in 2012.
For many Bangladeshis, especially those whose kin were killed or raped in the liberation war, the ICT is a bold initiative. “It is doing good work,” gender specialist and social activist Farzana Shahnaz Majid tells The Diplomat. Farzana’s father, a superintendent of police in Rajshahi was pro-liberation and was dragged away by the military in the first week of the liberation war. His body was never found.
Countless families like Farzana’s have been waiting more than 42 years for justice.
The ICT indicted eleven persons on charges ranging from abduction to arson, rape, mass murder, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It has convicted eight so far and sentenced five of them to death.
Among those who escaped the death sentence is Ghulam Azam, who headed the JI’s East Pakistan unit during the liberation war and is believed have planned Operation Searchlight, a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani army in March 1971. His advanced age and ill health – the 91-year old is wheelchair-bound – helped him escape the noose.
Besides organizing violent protests on the streets of Dhaka, the JI is orchestrating a high-decibel campaign by its supporters in the Bangladeshi Diaspora to undermine the ICT’s credibility. The U.K.-based granddaughter of Azam, Aisha Rahman, has accused the ICT of political witch-hunting. It has targeted “a small number of key political figures” belonging to the JI and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) although “crimes were committed by both sides [pro and anti-liberation forces] during the war,” she argues.
Indeed, nine of the indicted are members of the JI and two of the BNP. Close allies, the JI and BNP are sworn enemies of the ruling AL. They believe the AL is interfering with the ICT’s working and using it to shore up its declining support ahead of upcoming general elections.
Doubting the AL’s sincerity in ensuring accountability, a London-based Bihari Muslim writer points out that the government has not put on trial those who killed Bihari Muslims during the liberation war. The Bihari Muslims are Urdu speaking, unlike the Bengali speaking majority in Bangladesh and supported a united Pakistan. They were looked upon as traitors and slaughtered in their thousands by the pro-liberation forces.
A war veteran who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity dismisses allegations that the ICT has “targeted” opposition leaders. “These men were put on trial because they committed terrible crimes, not because of their political affiliations,” he points out. If the ICT did not put on trial those who killed Bihari Muslims, this is because such incidents “were few and far between compared with the genocidal killings by the Pakistan military and its local collaborators.”