The Midlife Crisis of Bangladesh

Bangladeshis want a reckoning with their bloody past. But can they do it without partisanship?


DHAKA, Bangladesh  41 years on, Bangladesh is trying to confront the traumas that accompanied its birth as a nation. But so far the process of coming to terms with the past is proving anything but simple.

Bangladeshis are watching in suspense as a high-profile trial aims to clarify responsibility for crimes committed during the bloody 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan. The trial, known as the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), is exploring the unsolved killings allegedly committed by militias and political groups that sided with Pakistan during the conflict.

But the resignation of a key judge, the disappearance of a vital witness, and allegations of political meddling have all cast doubts on the impartiality of the proceedings — and left many wondering whether the promise of a cathartic reckoning is yielding instead to the imperatives of old partisan feuds.

“We have been concerned from the very beginning about the ICT and the rules of procedure,” notes Tej Thapa of Human Rights Watch (HRW). Fueling such worries is the fact that the defendants are all opposition politicians who have participated in recent governments. The current Awami League (AL) administration promised such a trial in the 2008 election that they won in a landslide.

Chief among the defendants are the elderly leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, the largest Islamic political group in the country and a coalition partner of the primary opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The Jamaat is traditionally seen as more pro-Pakistan. The ruling Awami League, which leans toward India, tends to have a more secular stance; it traces its political lineage back to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, when Bengali nationalists in what was then known as “East Pakistan” led a fight to break away from the control of Islamabad.

Estimates vary on the numbers of Bangladeshis who perished in the conflict: The figures range from tens of thousands to three million. Possibly hundreds of thousands of women are believed to have become the victims of brutal sexual crimes at the hands of paramilitaries and the Pakistani military. Rape and butchery were seen as a strategy of the Pakistani military in its efforts to crush freedom fighters and to purge the non-Islamic elements of Bangladeshi society, through the targeting of Hindus and intellectuals.

One of the chief defendants in the current trial, Ghulam Azam, for example, was chairman of Jamaat at the time of the war, and allegedly set up vigilante groups to oppose Bangladeshi independence. (The photo above shows Azam arriving at court in his wheelchair earlier this year.)

Many of the most serious perpetrators are either dead or in Pakistan, where they fled after the war. But the fact some of them continued to participate in the country’s political life for decades after the war rightly concerns many Bangladeshis. This also means that it is nearly impossible to separate the trial from current partisan maneuverings.

Over the past forty years, Bangladeshi politics has remained split between more conservative pro-Pakistan forces, who support a vision of Bangladesh as an Islamic nation above all else, and those who favor a country with a more secular, distinctly Bengali identity.

The December 11 resignation of Justice Nizamul Huq, one of the three senior judges presiding over the trial, is only the most recent plot twist in the trial’s stormy course. He stepped down just days after The Economist acquired 17 hours of leaked Skype conversations and hundreds of e-mails that passed between him and a Brussels-based legal expert, Ahmed Ziauddin.

According to the documents, Huq told his friend that the government is “absolutely crazy for a judgment. The government has gone totally mad. They have gone completely mad, I am telling you. They want a judgment by 16th December… It’s as simple as that.”

The exasperated judge appears to have sought help from Ziaudinn on how to nail down quick convictions. Ziauddin even allegedly helped the judge to draw up indictments.

Huq told Ziauddin that a government minister “came to visit me this evening. He asked me to pass this verdict fast. I told him ‘how can I do that?’… He said, ‘Try as quick as you can.'” How the material was leaked is still unclear.

Defense lawyer Abdur Razzaq, a member of Jamaat, says that the revelations “seriously questioned the integrity of the court, through executive interference to the highest degree.”

This could be the “tip of the iceberg,” Razzaq adds, “because we do not know what conversations they had with the other judges.”

The independence of the current trial was seriously compromised when a key defense witness disappeared on November 5. Shukho Ranjon Bali was originally a prosecution witness but had never appeared in court, having testified only in written statements — a provision of the trial singled out for criticism by Human Rights Watch.

Bali’s testimony was part of the trial of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, an Islamic preacher and Jamaat stalwart accused of being involved in the killing of 50 people, rape, and arson. Bali was preparing to testify in court that much of his alleged prior testimony had actually been made up by the prosecution. “Witness Bali was a real threat to the prosecution,” says Razzaq. “If he had been in the witness box he would have had a shattering effect.”

Defense lawyers allege that Bali was picked up by the police as he was heading to court on November 5 to testify for their side. He has not been heard from since. Had he been able to testify in court as planned, this would have posed serious questions about much of the evidence brought before the tribunal.

A U.S. State Department cable from February 2010 published by WikiLeaks bolsters the critics’ concerns, noting that “there is little doubt that hard-line elements within the ruling party [AL] believe that the time is right to crush Jamaat and other Islamic parties.”

Perhaps as a result, in November 2011 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that “holding individuals in pre-trial detention in the absence of any reasoned and adequate explanation is unnecessary and disproportional to the aim sought.”

Defense lawyer Razzaq asserts that the international community has spoken “with one voice” in condemnation of the trial process. Many Bangladeshis have objected to the extent of international censure directed at the trial. Some contend that the criticism is of a piece with the Nixon administration’s support of Pakistan at the time of the conflict, and the United States’ subsequent alleged support for more conservative forces in local politics.

“The Americans have long favored BNP and Jamaat over the Awami League since they identified the AL as pro-Soviet socialists and the BNP as pro-free market,” says Zafar Sobhan, a columnist and editor of the Dhaka Tribune newspaper. “They still have a preference for moderate Muslim parties over liberal democrats in the developing world.”

Most of the defendants are from Jamaat, the third-largest party in the country, while two are from the BNP. The two parties formed a coalition in the previous democratically-elected government between 2001-2006 under Khaleda Zia, a perennial rival to current AL Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Both of these female figureheads are daughters of assassinated former leaders. (Between early 2007 and the 2008 election the country was under military rule.)

Jamaat has become a serious player because of its capacity to bring one of the main parties to power through coalition. Defense lawyer Razzaq alleges that, as a result, nine of the Jamaat defendants on trial have been charged “for political reasons.” He calls the tribunal “a show trial.”

For Ishtiaque Hussein, a veteran freedom fighter from the 1971 war, there is “no doubt” that the Jamaat party members now on trial were involved in the genocide.

Many Bangladeshis insist that the country needs to heal the wounds of its founding conflict by seeing justice done. “The 1971 war clearly remains an open wound for most Bangladeshis,” Thapa says. “Human Rights Watch feels strongly that accountability for the horrific crimes is very important, and that justice must be brought to the victims who have waited for over 40 years.”

The recent turmoil has raised the political temperature, resulting in a litany of general strikes, known as hartals, in the capital Dhaka, causing chaos and economic uncertainty. This has fueled rumors that the military will once again step in and take power. It was likely similar fears that last year prompted the Awami League to abolish the long-standing caretaker system, in which the incumbent government cedes power to an interim government before and during elections.

Predictably this has only fueled more opposition and popular ire, paradoxically increasing the likelihood of another military takeover. Some Bangladeshis wonder whether the next general election, currently scheduled for next winter, will take place as planned.

The trial has exacerbated the deep chasms among the country’s various political camps. Its outcome will have a profound effect on the coming political year (including the election). If the defendants (who theoretically face the death penalty) are found guilty, they could become martyrs for conservative Islamic parties or instill further power in the ruling AL. At the same time, there are many voters who believe in the necessity of urgent action to rid the political elite of possible war criminals. They will see a failure by the prosecution to make its accusations stick as a sign of the government’s weakness.

What is certain is that the many irregularities in the tribunal have undermined its legitimacy. For the time being, the disputes over Bangladesh’s past continue to divide the present.

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