By Anshuman Behera
After 39 long years, the Bangladesh Government is all set to bring the War Criminals (WCs) of 1971 to justice. In its election manifesto the Awami League leader and its Prime Ministerial candidate, Sheikh Hasina, had made it crystal clear that the men who collaborated with the Pakistan Army and Government in the genocide of an estimated 3 million people during the Liberation War, and in the use of rape and collective slaughters as instruments of state policy, would finally be taken to account.
With a clear mandate in the election of December 2008, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has moved decisively to fulfil this commitment, within her larger initiatives to reverse the politics of extremism and political violence that had progressively come to dominate her country. There is a significant overlap between the two objectives – curtailing Islamist extremism and terrorism, and bring the WCs to justice – since the principal players in both are the same. The Tribunal, which is mandated to trail and prosecute the WCs, was constituted on March 25, 2010. The Government had also appointed an investigative and research organisation, the War Criminals Fact Finding Committee (WCFFC), which handed over a list of WCs and documented evidence in support of charges against them, on April 4, 2010. According to the convener of the WCFFC, M. A. Hassan, the documentation comprehended 18 books, the names and addresses of 1,775 alleged WCs, and detailed accounts of crimes, including mass killings. On March 23, moreover, reports indicated that the Government had approved a list of war criminals prepared by the National Security Intelligence (NSI) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
Crucially, unlike any earlier regime at Dhaka, the Sheikh Hasina Government has placed law enforcement and intelligence agencies on an alert to prevent alleged WCs from fleeing Bangladesh during the trials.
Reinforcing these moves, the Government also plans to deploy some six million Ansar (Village Defence Party) members countrywide to combat militancy and improve law and order, creating conditions for the smooth conduct of the proposed trials.
These are giant steps, after decades of collusion by successive regimes, but a backlash is already forming. Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly warned that Islamist fundamentalist political formations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), one of the principal actors in the 1971 genocide, and powerful pro-Pakistan groups such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), under the leadership of former Prime Minister Begum Khalida Zia, Sheikh Hasina’s arch rival, will do everything in their power to scuttle the trials. Addressing her countrymen, party workers and ministers on March 27, 2010, Shiekh Hasina warned,
As the process of the trial of war criminals started, a conspiracy is being hatched by certain quarters against it. You have to remain vigilant to prevent any sort of conspiracy in the greater national interest… those who have politically rehabilitated the war criminals after the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu [Sheikh Mujibur Rehman] along with most of his family members may try to create instability in the country ahead of the trials.
On April 11, she added, further,
…the intention of the Opposition against the Government is to protect the war criminals. They have adopted the same way to protect the war criminals as they did to save the killers of Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rehman).
The political Right in Bangladesh is whipping up a propaganda campaign claiming that the Sheikh Hasina regime is trying to ‘muzzle’ the Opposition by abusing legal processes and the “farce of war crimes”.
However, State Minister for Law, Qamrul Islam, reiterated, on March 30,
We have no political motive. We would certainly maintain international standards in the trial process and would be transparent… Despite repeated calls to cooperate with the Government for trying war criminals, the opposition party [BNP] and the JeI leaders are hatching a conspiracy to foil the process by making audacious remarks. The Government would certainly try the war criminals within its tenure despite all kinds of obstacles.”
The JeI has more than one reason to attempt to thwart the war crimes trials. The top JeI leadership stands accused, and, if convicted, would permanently lose the right to contest elections to Parliament and other local bodies. A senior JeI leader conceded, on March 24, that “there is possibility that a number of Jamaat leaders might be detained on charge of war crimes after the investigation.” Other Jamaat leaders have also voiced concern about the start of the trial process and possible detention.
Noted Bangladesh watcher Hiranmay Karlekar argues, further, that the Jamaat, along with its student’s wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS or Shibir), constitute the matrix within which terrorist organizations like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh (AHAB) evolved. Leaders like Mufti Abdul Hannan and Bangla Bhai aka Siddiqul Islam, ‘Operations Commanders’ of the HuJI-B and JMJB respectively, till their arrest and eventual executions, Abdur Rahman of JMB, Muhammad Asadullah al-Galib of AHAB, graduated either from the Jamaat or the Shibir or both. The war crimes trials would, in fact, constitute a major setback to the entire spectrum of Islamist extremist groups in Bangladesh.
Significantly, the Government has also taken the initiatives to investigate a number of Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that emerged during the BNP-JeI coalition regime between 2001 and 2006. It is believed that the huge funding the Jamaat gets from Islamic fundamentalist and extremist groups abroad is channelled through these NGOs. Investigations of these NGOs could cripple the Jamaat’s operations.
Crucially, since the Jamaat has been the gateway of Pakistani interests in Bangladesh since and before the war years, as well as the principal instrument of Pakistan-backed militant and terrorist activities, it is evident that Pakistan will not easily accept the war crimes trials.
Unsurprisingly, the Jamaat is resorting to every possible means to obstruct the trial process. Of all such initiatives, the most important involves its students’ wing, the ICS, which is trying to provoke violence. The Rajshahi University murder, on February 9, 2010, is a case in point. An activist of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), Faruk Hossain, was killed by cadres of the ICS at Rajshahi University, and another 100 were injured in overnight clashes between the BCL and ICS. Though the Government controlled the situation, arresting some 437 ICS cadres after February 9, the impact of the violence that followed the killing, particularly on the functioning of educational institutions, is still perceptible.
Further, the Jamaat, along with BNP lawmaker, Abdul Wadud, has been accused by a parliamentary body, on March 10, of instigating unrest and violence in the Hill Districts, with the assistance of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Some of the recent Jamaat activities have prominently included:
March 4: Kishoreganj Police arrested two JeI cadres, RamjanAli and AzizulHuq, of the Kishoreganj District unit while leading a procession in the town protesting against the Government.
March 11: The Police recovered 37 handmade bombs from a sand heap outside district JeI office at Bhadughar of Brahmanbaria District.
March 22: The JeI cadres assaulted a freedom fighter, his wife and son and set ablaze his house at Kashidangi village under Baliadangi sub-district of Thakurgaon District.
March 28: JeI Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed warned the Government of an ‘explosive situation’ if his party leaders and workers were roped in on “imaginary charges”. The warning came in the wake of wide speculations that JeI leaders would soon be brought to the dock on charge of war crimes.
April 9: Police arrested four cadres of JeI and ICS as they took out a procession in the city streets violating Section 144 imposed by Barisal District Police Commissioner.
The BNP is also exerting all possible pressure on the trial process. Initially, the party left its closest ally, the JeI, to face the music on its own. However, once the Government’s initiatives surged forward, the BNP sought increasingly to confuse the issue. In its official statement on the war criminal trials, the Party’s General Secretary, Khandakar Delwar Hossain stated, on April 2, “The Government has stepped away from the trials of the war criminals and now they are holding the trials of the crimes against humanity, deviating from the election manifesto”. He also questioned the formation of a special tribunal to carry out the trial. Ironically, one of the senior leaders Khandakar Mosharraf Hossain of the BNP, on March 31, alleged that Sheikh Hasina had given shelter to war criminals: “…the BNP demands the trail of Sheikh Hasina as she joined hands with the war criminals and provided them shelter.”
Despite BNP-JeI opposition, the trial process is moving forward. In one instance, cases have been filed against 19 alleged war criminals, including JeI leader Maulana A.K.M. Yusuf, on February 17, 2010. On March 24, just before the formation of the WCT, JeI leaders Mohammad Kamaruzzaman and Addur Razzaque were barred from going abroad. On April 7, 14 people, including an advocate Muslem Uddin, an Awami League law maker were sued for their alleged involvement in war crimes.
Though the Government’s commitment to take the war crimes proceedings quickly forward is evident, there are powerful forces of subversion that continue to operate in Bangladesh. Despite tremendous strides forward on a multiplicity of fronts over the past year, the country remains fragile and susceptible to destabilization. The BNP-JeI combine retain the backing of the Pakistani intelligence and military establishment, and, apart from directly compromising Pakistani influence in Bangladesh, the war crimes threaten to bring a close focus on Pakistan’s hideous record in 1971 – something Islamabad has, astonishingly, been able to brush under the carpet for nearly four decades. While the JeI and its linked radical Islamist terrorist network has suffered tremendous reverses over the past years, the Party retains substantial grassroots influence, a nationwide institutional infrastructure, and a strong cadre base. The 2008 elections have been an enormous defeat for the BNP-JeI combine, but the struggle to stabilize this troubled country is far from over. It remains to be seen whether the war crimes trials will secure greater stability, or provoke a confrontation that can undermine the incipient gains of the past year.
Anshuman Behera is a Research Assistant for the Institute for Conflict Management. This article first appeared at the South Asia Terrorist Portal – SATP – (http://www.satp.org) – produced by the Institute of Conflict Management.