Last month, the life of one of Bangladesh’s most notorious war criminals was spared. The country’s Supreme Court handed down a sentence of life in prison, instead of death, for Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, convicted of genocide, homicide and rape during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan.
As a soldier in that war, and one who lost half a dozen family members to enemy torture and murder during the conflict, I will not dispute the decision rendered by my country’s highest court. Yet I cannot help but be despondent. Having fought against Sayeedi and others like him who collaborated with the Pakistani army – and seeing firsthand the atrocities they wrought – I believe convicted war criminals should pay the ultimate price for their crimes.
Still, the fact that Sayeedi and other criminals are finally facing justice is a bit of a miracle in itself. It took Bangladesh four decades to establish a body that could bring justice for families like mine. It is only now that those responsible for the genocide of more than 3 million people in 1971 are finally facing the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh.
Why has this taken so long?
The answer is found in Bangladesh’s short, sectarian and fractious history. It demonstrates the committed efforts of the current government to bring justice for the families of the genocide’s victims, even as the political allies of the perpetrators fight to prevent it.
In fact, Bangladesh began the war crimes process immediately after it became a new country, in 1971.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was Bangladesh’s leading statesman during its fight for independence and was imprisoned by Pakistan during the war. Within days of being released after the war ended, Sheikh Mujib, as he was known, began taking the necessary steps to try the war criminals under the country’s judicial system.
Over the next three years, prosecutors won convictions for 800 war criminals, with others slated to follow. These convictions included some of the worst war criminals – those directly responsible for slaughtering Bangladeshis and ordering others to do so. Many sprang from an extremist group called Jamaat-e-Islami.
But before the work of justice could be finished, fate intervened.
Sheikh Mujib was assassinated, along with his family, in August 1975. A military coup took charge, led by Gen. Ziaur Rahman, known as Zia. He soon released jailed collaborators and created an official indemnity act for Sheikh Mujib’s assassins and other political criminals. The process of bringing war criminals to justice was halted.
Zia not only saved the war criminals from prosecution, he put them in the highest posts in government, from ministries to Parliament to chief of the Air Force.
But Zia’s greatest harm was the legitimization of Jamaat-e-Islami, which had collaborated with the Pakistani army. Zia amended the constitution to allow Jamaat to become one of Bangladesh’s political parties. Incomprehensible. A defeated internal foe of a country was now being given license to operate freely within that country. This would have been like the United States allowing a Confederate Party to exist after the Civil War.
Jamaat essentially set up an extremist state-within-a-state inside Bangladesh, building power and money. It became the funding and muscle for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and when its head, Khaleda Zia, become prime minister in 1991, Jamaat’s enfranchisement become complete.
Jamaat had moved from strength to strength. Only two decades after savagely fighting Bangladesh’s independence and participating in genocide against Bengalis, Jamaat, incredibly, had its hand on the levers of state power.
Jamaat and the BNP launched a coordinated campaign to destroy documents and evidence implicating the war criminals. The executive apparatus of the government was populated by elements staunchly opposed to the 1971 Liberation War and favorable to fundamentalist powers. The last vestiges of the war were eliminated from the constitution and public institutions, including the parliament.
It was in this context that the arduous and audacious task of activating the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was undertaken under an inexperienced and untried judicial structure. The whole process was surrounded by hostile elements.
And yet, in 2011, under the leadership of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, the ICT convened.
To date, verdicts have been declared against 12 accused war criminals, with the death sentence issued against one defendant.
Since the BNP and Jamaat have been out of power, they have worked ceaselessly to delegitimize the ICT on the world stage, portraying it merely as political payback. At home, Jamaat has engaged in nothing less than domestic terrorism, rolling across Bangladesh in waves of coordinated attacks aimed at mass destruction of government offices and private property. Jamaat has derailed trains, set fire to busses, beaten and intimidated political opponents and, amazingly, engaged in broad-daylight assassinations of Awami League officials. Over the past year, more than 300 Bangladeshis have been killed and some 1,500 injured in BNP-Jamaat violence.
Now, families like mine await the ICT’s verdict on another infamous criminal of the 1971 war, Motiur Rahman Nizami, who is facing 16 charges, including crimes against humanity, genocide, murder, torture, rape and property destruction, most of which are based on eyewitness accounts.
For four decades before the ICT, Nizami was a free man and even a part of Bangladesh’s political system. But now, finally, justice is being done. That’s why the ICT, delayed as it may have been, is crucial to the future of Bangladesh.
Abed Khan is an editor in Bangladesh and was a freedom fighter in the 1971 War of Independence.