Features | Society | South Asia

Bangladesh: Justice or Revenge?

After several convictions, it is unclear whether the country’s war crimes tribunal is truly about justice.

Bangladesh: Justice or Revenge?
Credit: REUTERS/Khurshed Rinku

Towards the end of his testimony, the prosecution asked their witness, 72-year-old Sunil Kanti Bardhan, to point out his attacker. Bardhan, who was testifying at Bangladesh’s ongoing International Criminal Tribunal (ICT), had already described his arrival in a torture center during the Liberation War of 1971. “As I was dumped in a room of Dalim Hotel, Mir Quasem Ali, appearing on the spot, started grilling me,” he said, adding that Quasem had threatened to kill him.

The accused, Mir Quasem Ali, is currently a senior official at Diganta, a news media organization that reaches into millions of Bangladeshi homes. But 43 years ago, this politically powerful Islamist is alleged to have played a very different role, as a commander at the “Dalim Hotel,” an improvised prison in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where pro-liberation militia members were tortured and killed.

Quasem is one of over a dozen men indicted by Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal, a belated effort to address the atrocities that occurred in the war that made Bangladesh, then a territory of Pakistan, an independent state. The tribunal has convicted several men and executed one. But as it awaits Quasem’s verdict, it’s unclear whether the tribunal has offered justice – or simply revenge.

The tribunal reflects political divisions that date to the 1971 war itself. On one side, there were those who desired an independent country defined by Bengali ethnicity and language. On the other, there was Pakistan, plus Bengalis who preferred the area to remain a Pakistani province defined by Islam. Four decades on, the victorious ethnic nationalists still feel ire for the old pro-Pakistan factions – who have nonetheless retained power through Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami.

This conflux of guilt and influence is where the war crimes tribunal has focused its attention. In 2010, the government began indicting upper-echelon members of Jamaat, and by early 2013 began delivering convictions.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But if the guilt of many individuals is plausible, the tribunal’s flaws have cast doubt on its proceedings. International observers note that political convenience appears to motivate the charges, as Jamaat and nearly only Jamaat leadership stand accused. Reports of corruption abound. A statement from Human Rights Watch alleges collusion between the prosecution and judges, which, it says, “calls into serious question the impartiality of the court.”

The tribunal brooked little of the ample criticism, reacting to Human Rights Watch’s letter by holding the organization in contempt of court. It did the same to David Bergman, a British journalist at Bangladesh’s New Age, for his published remarks on the tribunal’s improprieties. John Cammegh, an international war crimes barrister and assistant to the defense, has described the removal of legal protections and unwillingness to hear critique as “a means of political vendetta, cynically and unlawfully implemented” and “a shameful advertisement for the [Bangladeshi] government.”

The death penalty appears to be what the Bangladeshi public wants. Last February, the court convicted Abdul Quader Mollah of murders and rape. With a nod to the limited evidence, the court handed him a life sentence. The perception of leniency incited public fury, and a protest movement of some 200,000 Bangladeshis demanded the sentence be changed to death by hanging. The movement was blatant in its disregard for the rule of law, pressing the government to retroactively overturn a rule that limited appeals, so that Quader Mollah’s sentence could be increased. It succeeded. In December, the government executed Mollah in Dhaka Central Jail to the cheers of crowds outside. The movement has since demanded hangings for all accused, irrespective of trial outcomes.

Rather than fair-minded justice, in other words, Bangladesh’s war crime tribunal appears to be an effort to exact revenge on targeted individuals. But why would a country so blatantly reject law and order in favor of revenge?

It may be part of the broader culture. Psychology researchers have discovered that collectivistic cultures — in other words, those that emphasize communal togetherness over individuality – may be more prone to revenge. A study of collectivism worldwide found that Bangladesh is one of the most collectivist cultures in the world – so much so, in fact, that study participants did not respond accurately to questions on self-esteem. Bangladesh’s collectivism may discourage public commitment to the rights of the accused.

Revenge is also valued by societies that cannot rely on a properly functioning criminal justice system. This was, in fact, what drove pro-death protestors in Bangladesh. Amid the country’s famed corruption many feared political dealings would free the convicted criminals after short imprisonments. This made death, the only punishment that cannot be undone, appealing to protestors. Their goal, in other words, began with the expectation that no one would uphold the rule of law.

This works in part through a deterrent effect. In an evolutionary biology sense, revenge is useful as a way to remind assailants that one is not to be trifled with. Indeed, this fear drives the public outcries for retribution; one freedom fighter even says he fears Pakistan attacking Bangladesh again.

But if revenge sounds sweet, recent science suggests it is otherwise. A 2008 study by American psychologists assessed this question by involving participants in a game played with money, and then offering them a chance to use their winnings to punish a cheater. Prior to the game, they’d been asked to predict the emotional consequence of revenge, and most said it would increase their happiness. Afterwards, though, they reported the revenge they’d taken had made them less happy, not more. Their expectation, in other words, was precisely wrong.

The study’s importance to traumatized individuals is unclear. “About the generalizability of the results,” Timothy Wilson, one of the study’s coauthors, says, “we simply don’t know.”

But it is these people who often most desire catharsis. In fact, revenge orientation has long been noted as a symptom of post-traumatic mental health problems. Since trauma is linked to depression and emotional volatility, these individuals may be most vulnerable to lowered mood after taking revenge. The war crimes tribunal includes no process for offering support to any survivors of the war, leaving this risk unaddressed.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Moreover, researchers point out that revenge’s deterrent effect might be ineffective. Revenge can function as a warning system against future aggressors. But it does not necessarily do so in a country in which polarized and violent political battles are already raging. In any case, what feels fair to one side can appear excessive to the other and lead to retaliation. Indeed, in 2013 Islamist fundamentalists in Bangladesh, alleging the war crimes tribunal was a sham, mounted a counter-protest movement that killed hundreds.

In addition, Jamaat-affiliated attackers have killed one prosecution witness and attacked others. Indeed, this might be the war crimes tribunal’s most profound injustice: despite favoring their accounts, the government has refused to provide witness protection from the risk of deadly retaliation. For 72-year-old Sunil Kanti Bardhan, who in the tribunal courtroom pointed out Mir Quasem Ali as his would-be killer, seeking justice might involve a risk to his life nearly as serious as the one he endured in 1971.

For Mir Quasem Ali, the threat is even more certain.

M. Sophia Newman, MPH, was a 2012-2013 Fulbright grantee to Bangladesh who lives in Dhaka and works as a freelance writer.