By Sanchita Bhattacharya
The War Crimes Trials in Bangladesh relate to genocidal offences that date back to the 1971 War of Liberation, but have become integral to the Sheikh Hasina regime’s efforts to de-radicalize the country, and end the long consolidation of Islamist extremist and terrorist forces that had been engineered in close collaboration with state and non-state entities from Pakistan. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), the principal organization connected with the War Crimes, has also been the fountainhead of a number of extremist formations, as well as a nationwide network of radical Islamist institutions that brought the country to the brink, using a combination of electoral politics and violent mobilization. Eventually, the state was forced to react after the August 17, 2005, bombings across 63 of the country’s 64 Districts, acting, first, against the terrorist formations Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), and then circling closer to the ideological source, the JeI.
The year 2010 was a watershed in this regard, with a trial process initiated for crimes that had not been addressed in four decades of Bangladesh’s independent existence. Reiterating the Government’s commitment, the Finance Minister of Bangladesh, A.M.A. Muhith declared, on March 9, 2011, “We will now uproot the war criminals.”
An investigation team of International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) visited Joypurhat and Pabna Districts on March 9-10, 2011, and collected evidence of War Crimes (WC) and crimes against humanity committed at different places of the Districts in 1971. The team visited Karamja village in Santhia Sub-Division of Pabna District on March 9 and took statements of the witnesses. Team leader Mohammad Abdur Razzak quoted witnesses as saying that the occupation troops [comprising of Pakistani military personnel] with the help of Pabna District’s Local Peace Committee member Khoda Baksh Khan, lined up eight male members of Megha Thakur’s family in front of their house in May 1971 and shot them dead. Members of the Peace Committee were principally drawn from the JeI. A mass grave of the eight male members of Megha’s family was discovered at his house in 2000 and Santhia Police took eight skeletons into custody. The investigation team collected the skeletons from the Police Station as evidence of the massacre of the eight.
Further, the team members also visited the location of the Koroi-Kadipur massacre in Joypurhat Sadar Sub-Division, Joypurhat Government College and the location of the Pagla-Dewan massacre. Reports indicate that at least 10,000 people were killed at Pagla-Dewan by local collaborators during the Liberation War. The team collected evidence and recorded statements of the witnesses to these massacres and also visited the Peace Committee Office in Joypurhat town.
On March 15, 2011, the ICT asked jail authorities to produce five detained Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leaders, including its Ameer (Chief) Motiur Rahman Nizami, before it, and also directed the prosecution to submit progress reports on the investigation into the War Crimes allegations against them by April 20, 2011. The tribunal directed the jail authorities to provide necessary medical treatment to Nayeb Ameer (Deputy Chief) Delwar Hossain Sayedee, as well. The order in respect of Nizami, Mojahid, Kamaruzzaman and Quader Molla was passed in a suo moto move by the ICT, while the order with respect to Sayedee was passed after hearing a petition filed by the prosecution seeking time for completing investigation against him.
On March 2, 2011, Rajshahi Investigators of ICT gathered evidence and statements of witnesses who were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint in Rajshahi District following directives of former JeI chief Ghulam Azam during the Liberation War in 1971. They also collected fortnightly secret reports of Special Branch of the then Police Department, which were sent to Police Stations across the country from Police Headquarters in Dhaka in 1971. [All the families converted back to Hinduism after the liberation, investigators disclosed]. Azam and other collaborators held meetings with Lieutenant General (Eastern Command) Tikka Khan in early April of 1971 and the genocide was initiated across the country following the meetings. Investigators also recorded statements of around 100 survivors who witnessed the dreadful event in the Charghat Sub-Division of Rajshahi District, where some 150 persons were killed by a firing squad and their bodies set ablaze. The evidence indicates that the mass killing took place in Padma Char, some 900 feet away from Thanapara village and Sardah Police Academy of Rajshahi District on April 13, 1971.
Further, Abdul Momen Talukdar Khoka, a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) lawmaker from Bogra District, was charged, on March 8, 2011, for killing two freedom fighters during the Liberation War. Khoka, along with Pakistani Army personnel, allegedly abducted freedom fighters Monsurul Haq Talukdar and Abdus Sattar of Komorpur village of Faridpur District. On November 24, 1971, two or three days after the abduction, Khoka shot and killed these two persons, as well as Abdul Jalil and Altaf Hossain, below the Kharir Bridge in Adamdighi Bazar of Bogra District, the case statement indicated.
The process of WC trials had started within one year of independence, in 1972, with the formulation of the Collaborators Act 1972 and the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973. The core aim of the 1973 Act was to provide for the detention, prosecution and punishment of persons for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under international law. After independence, the Awami League (AL) Government had taken several initiatives to bring the perpetrators of the 1971 War Crimes to justice, particularly those who, in the name of organisations like Razakars, Al-Badar, and Al-Shams, had directly and indirectly assisted the Pakistan military forces to commit monstrous crimes like mass murder, rape, torture, looting, arson and destruction. Accordingly, under the Collaborators and ICT Acts, several tribunals were constituted for the trial of WCs and a few convictions were secured. After the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, however, the Collaborators Act of 1972 was repealed and the Constitution was amended once again to allow religion-based communal politics to flourish, and the JeI to re-establish itself in the country. The WCs trial process was blocked and, for the following three decades, a succession of military administrations swept aside all attempts to secure justice, fearing that many among their own ranks could be brought into the scope of the trials. Successive Government freed more than 10,000 war crime suspects, and the trials were completely frozen after the political turmoil of 1975, and virtually buried thereafter. The weak coalition Government of the AL between 1996 an 2001 failed to push aggressively for a restoration of the processes.
The 2008 Election Manifesto of AL, in its “Charter for Change”, however, openly blamed the Military Governments and ‘political parties formed in the Cantonment’ (a reference to the Bangladesh National Party, BNP) of rehabilitating the War Criminals. The trial of WCs was listed among the “Five Priority Issues” in the Manifesto, which declared, “Trial of war criminals will be arranged”.
In 2009, the Bangladesh Parliament passed amendment to the Act of 1973 to bring to trial people responsible for severe human rights violations and crimes against humanity during the Liberation War of 1971, though the law still falls short of international standards. Bangladesh’s ICT was constituted on March 25, 2010. The Tribunal includes three High Court Judges and six investigators retired from Civilian, Law Enforcement and Military careers. On June 25, 2010, Chief Justice Nizamul Haque issued warrants against five members of JeI – Chief Matiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujaheed, Deputy Chief Delwar Hossain Sayedee, senior leaders Mohammad Kamaruzzaman and Abdul Qader Mollah – along with BNP member Salauddin Quader Chowdhury alias Shaka Chowdhury, who were charged with sedition and war crimes, including genocide, rape, torture, looting, arson. Among them, Nizami, Mujaheed and Sayedee were arrested on June 29, 2010, Kamruzamman and Mollah on July 13, 2010, and Salauddin on December 16, 2010.
This initiation of the WC trials seeks to bring to justice the men, prominently including the top leadership of the JeI, who collaborated with the Pakistan Army and Government in the genocide of an estimated three million people during the Liberation War, and in the use of rape and collective slaughters as instruments of State policy.
The Government 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. Earlier, on March 23, 2010, reports indicated that the Government had approved a list of WCs prepared by the National Security Intelligence (NSI) and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
The WC trial process was initiated on March 25, 2010, but is now facing demands from many civil society organisations to be speeded up. In response, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed, on December 15, 2010, gave a commitment that WC trials would be completed within the tenure of the present Government, adding, “We are trying that the war crimes trial lives up to international standards and none can raise any question about it.” Further, on December 20, 2010, he had said that the trial of the detained WC-accused would start in January-February 2011
The Government of Bangladesh, on January 11, 2011, appointed another two investigators to the WC investigation agency and excluded one from the existing 19-member probe body, bringing its total strength to 20. The new investigators are M. Sanaul Haque, former Inspector General of Police (IGP) and Muhammad Abdul Hannan Khan, former Additional Deputy IGP. Khasrur Haque was dropped from the body. Meanwhile, State Minister for Home, Shamsul Haque Tuku, warned of tough punishment for anyone threatening officials involved in the trial of the WCs.
The WC trials now appear to be well begun, but their outcome will depend on the quality of the process, its transparency and, crucially, the time frame within which it is completed. Commenting on the effectiveness of the ongoing trials, Caitlin Reger, a senior associate at the International Center for Transitional Justice, noted that the quality of evidence placed before the court would determine the success or failure of the Tribunal and, “The focus has to remain on the crimes that have been committed and not on the political affiliations of potential suspects, or else the validity and effectiveness of the trial will be undermined.”
Crucially, if the trials are carried out in a transparent manner, a new generation in Bangladesh will be made aware of the extreme distress inflicted, and the cost paid, during the War of Liberation, to achieve independence, as also the gruesome consequences of the abuse of religion to justify heinous crimes. The success of the WC trials is possible only if the exploitation of religion in the country’s power-play is brought to an end, an idea that appears almost utopian in the present political situation in Bangladesh.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management