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The War Crimes Trial and Forthcoming Elections in Bangladesh

Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 18, 2013

    When Sheikh Hasina expressed her desire to prosecute war criminals after getting elected for the second time as the prime minister of Bangladesh, people who follow developments in that country knew that it would lead to street battles and clashes. It was not difficult to predict this as it was known that the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has considerable following in the country and in all likelihood would support the Jamaat in the event of war crime trials convicting top Jamaat leaders. What is surprising is that these protests have started a little too early, thanks to the spontaneous movement that erupted at the Shahbagh square in Central Dhaka after the International Crimes Tribunal-2 sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah to life imprisonment. Since then things have become worse. The subsequent verdict awarded the death penalty to Jamaat leader Delawar Hossain Sayedee for his war crimes. This has made some analysts suggest that Sheikh Hasina should moderate her quest for justice.

    The important question here is will the Shahbagh protestors tolerate any leniency on the part of the government. And even if they do, such a move will only discredit the Awami League. The youth protestors at Shahbagh square do not have affiliations to any political organization or group. They were outraged by the verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah who was given only life imprisonment. Tribunal-2 Chairman Justice Obaidul Hassan and members Justice Md Mozibur Rahman Miah and Judge M Shahinur Islam unanimously held Mollah guilty on five of the six charges brought against him. The only charge that the prosecution could not prove was the one for killing hundreds of people at Ghatar Char and Bhawal Khan Bari in Keraniganj.

    The Bangladeshi people were surprised at the verdict. They wanted Mollah hanged, given the severity of his crimes. The verdict caused frustration among the country’s liberation war heroes. The Sector Commanders' Forum issued a statement saying that “the verdict is unacceptable to the martyrs' families, freedom fighters and the common people.” This was not unusual to expect from a country which had won its liberation after sacrificing more than a million lives. The worst kinds of atrocities were committed on Bengali men and women. Nearly 300,000 women were raped. Possibly, it must be one of the first occasions in modern times where rape was used as an instrument of war. In these crimes the Jamaat and its leaders worked as local collaborators (Razakars) of the Pakistan army. Today, a large number of Bangladeshi families of Muktijodhas (freedom-fighters) have a story to tell about what they faced during those times. Clearly, the educated and progressive youth of Bangladesh today want maximum punishment awarded to the war criminals most of whom are Jamaat leaders of that era.

    The BNP, an ally of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the 18-party opposition, however, did not give any reaction to the verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah. It suspects that the Awami League wants to go for elections later this year by sidelining the party and projecting the Jamaat as the main opposition. This has also been alleged by two lawmakers of the Workers Party and the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, which are part of the Awami League-led ruling alliance. They have stated in parliament that there might be a move behind the curtain to strike a deal with the Jamaat-e-Islami in the prevailing political situation. They have warned the party that it would tantamount to playing with snakes. They also questioned the role of the home ministry in allowing Jamaat-Shibir to hold a rally in Dhaka during which the latter warned of a civil war if the trial of war criminals is not stopped.

    Unfortunately, the international community has not played a positive role in supporting the endeavour of the Bangladesh government to bring war criminals to justice. Not only have protests come from Pakistan whose army stands guilty of perpetrating these crimes, but suggestions to stop the war crimes trials have also come from countries like Turkey. It is also difficult to understand why the Western world, which wants to check the ideology of Taliban and al-Qaeda, is opting to ignore the similar ideology pursued by the Jamaat and treats the latter as a benign force. Western media and human right organizations have raised questions about the formation of the International Crimes Tribunals. They also argue that these trials have split the country down the middle. But what they forget is that the political division in Bangladesh has always been very sharp. The war crimes trials have only made it clearly visible. Moreover, it is doubtful that the Jamaat and the BNP would let the Awami League breathe easy until elections that are due later this year even if the Awami League government were to go slow on these trials.

    Even as it stands firm on the issue of proceeding with the war crimes trials, the Awami League government should not make the mistake of going for an election without the participation of the main opposition BNP. As things stand today in Bangladesh, no election would be considered legitimate unless both the Awami League and the BNP participate in it.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India