A reckoning of reprisals
Bangladesh, born of a brutal and tragic civil war in 1971, is finally trying to come to terms with its violent past. The Awami League government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has put into motion a judicial process to identify and punish the prominent individuals who had collaborated with the Pakistan Army in 1971 to torture and eliminate pro-independence supporters.
The majority under trial are Islamists, who had opposed the break-up of Pakistan, which had led to the creation of Bangladesh. Today, the Islamists in Bangladesh have once again grown into a powerful extremist force that is pro-Pakistan, anti-India and virulently opposed to the progressive policies of the present government.
These Islamist forces are allied to the main Bangladesh Opposition party — the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — and have launched a movement within and outside Bangladesh to vilify the trials. Their aim is to slow the judicial process till the next general elections when it is hoped that the BNP led by Begum Khaleda Zia would return to power and quash the trials.
For the thousands of Bangladeshis who remain scarred by the events of the 1971 civil war, the trials are the only means of redress. In 1971, Bengali nationalists had risen against West Pakistani domination and launched a movement for independence, which had in turn led to a crackdown by the Pakistan Army on the civilian population.
Horrendous atrocities and mass killings were carried out that year in a nine-month period beginning in March 1971 by Pakistani soldiers and their local collaborators, mostly Islamists belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) organisation. According to some estimates, the reprisals by the Pakistani forces had led to the death of as many as three million people (although other estimates put the death toll at a much lower figure of 200,000).
For various reasons the collaborators could not be brought to justice after Bangladesh attained independence in December 1971. Yet during all these years a vocal section of Bangladeshi civil society has continued to demand that the collaborators be brought to justice just as Nazi war criminals are even today being sought out and convicted.
On March 25, 2010, the Bangladesh government constituted an “International Crimes Tribunal” (ICT) to examine the complicity of individuals involved in the widespread killings and atrocities during the 1971 civil war. This specially appointed tribunal was mandated under the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 of Bangladesh, and after more than a year of investigation, began filing charges beginning November 2011.
The “war crimes trials”, as this judicial process is popularly known in Bangladesh, has till date charged six prominent Islamists and two BNP leaders with various crimes, including murder, genocide, rape and religious persecution. The eight persons so far accused of war crimes are Golam Azam (former amir of the JI), Motiur Rahman Nizami (JI chief), Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed (JI secretary general), Delwar Hossain Sayeedee (Naib-e-Amir of the JI), Muhammad Kamaruzzaman (senior assistant secretary general of the JI), Abdul Qader Mollah (assistant secretary general of the JI), Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury (standing committee member of the BNP) and Abdul Aleem (former minister and BNP leader). Seven of the eight accused are under arrest while Abdul Aleem is out on bail due to poor health.
The most prominent of these is Islamist leader Golam Azam, 89, who is alleged to have directed killings, rapes and abductions during the struggle. Azam escaped lynching by fleeing to Pakistan just before Bangladesh became independent. He returned to Bangladesh after he was given amnesty by the country’s former military regime. Azam remains a widely hated figure in Bangladesh and the father figure of the Islamist organisation, the JI. Attempts to bring war criminals such as Azam to trial had been thwarted by successive military regimes.
During Gen. Ziaur Rahman’s tenure many anti-independence politicians, including Golam Azam, were allowed to return to the country and resume their activities. Although Gen. Ziaur Rahman was assassinated in 1981, the conservative forces that he supported coalesced into a political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by his wife, Begum Khaleda Zia, who carried on with his policies and developed close ties with Islamist elements, some of whom helped her form the government for the second time in 2001.
The conservatives have been promoting Wahabi Islam and this has led to the emergence of various terrorist organisations in Bangladesh, some of which have ties with Al Qaeda. Not surprisingly, between 2000 and 2006, during the tenure of BNP Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh reported 1,926 terrorist incidents, the eighth highest in the world. Islamist militants have targeted Opposition politicians, scholars, journalists, members of the judiciary, religious minorities and members of the Islamic Ahmadiya sect. Sheikh Hasina was among the targets of the Islamist terrorists.
The history of Bangladesh politics has been a struggle between the forces represented by the Awami League and those represented by the BNP. This struggle is reflected in the opposition to the war crimes trials.
Ms Hasina has made the war crimes trial a political issue. Last year, during a mammoth public rally in the capital, Dhaka, she accused Ms Zia of siding with the war criminals. “You (Khaleda) are conspiring to save the war criminals… you betrayed the country by making Nizami (Matiur Rahman Nizami) a minister and allowed him to hoist the national flag,” Sheikh Hasina publicly alleged. In the same speech, she also accused the late dictator Ziaur Rahman of allowing war criminals to enter politics.
If the war crimes trials do not reach a conclusion before the next general elections in Bangladesh, then it might for ever remain unresolved. For, if Ms Zia comes to power, she will once again restore the powers of fundamentalist organisations like the JI and others, that have links to the Inter-Services Intelligence and other extremist Pakistani institutions.
On the other hand, the successful conclusion of the trials and punishment of the accused would deal a big blow to the Islamist forces in Bangladesh and hinder its re-emergence in that country’s politics. If that does not happen, then not only Bangladesh but the entire region will remain threatened by the politics and growing influence of a rabid Islamist force, which had no compunctions about murdering its own people at a time of a great national rising.
The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant