By Anand Kumar*
The war crime trials in Bangladesh are the unfinished agenda of the Liberation War of the Bangladeshi people who had won their liberation from Pakistan on 16 December 1971. The country is now trying to complete this by bringing some of the worst-grade war criminals to justice. In this endeavour it has already hanged four war criminals while the trials are underway for some others. These war criminals had sided with the raiding Pakistani forces in 1971 and committed extreme atrocities on Bengali people. Unfortunately, even after decades Pakistan appears remorseless for these crimes committed by its army and its cohorts against the Bangladeshi people.
The non-punishment of war criminals for long became a major point of concern within the independent Bangladesh. What was worse is that in the interregnum, the war criminals tried to get political legitimacy and gathered strength because of the suitable political conditions in the country. On 15th August 1975 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered by the anti-liberation forces present within the Bangladeshi army. This was a turning point in the history of Bangladesh. The subsequent military and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) regimes tried to rehabilitate Islamists and anti-Liberation forces predominantly represented by Jamaat-e-Islami.
This changed political situation afforded Pakistan an opportunity to influence Bangladesh politically. Both Jamaat-e-Islami and the BNP adopted a pro-Pakistani attitude. This was an insult to the Mukti-Jodhas or Bangladeshi freedom fighters who had sacrificed their life to win liberation for the country. Though occasional voices were heard in the country to prosecute war criminals, they were not heeded to.
This delay in trial of war criminals allowed them not only to get political legitimacy but also increase their influence in the Bangladeshi society. Organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami later became hand in glove with various terrorist organisations. Jamaat participated in democratic elections but wanted to bring Sharia rule in the country. This endangered democracy in Bangladesh. The people allied with them launched deadly attack on Sheikh Hasina when she was addressing a rally in Dhaka in August 2004. All these developments motivated Hasina to complete the war crime trials which had been pending for a long time.
It is hardly surprising that when Hasina came to power in 2009 the trial of war criminals was on top of her agenda. However, this was not liked by Pakistan. This became clear when Zia Ispahani, the special envoy of then Pakistan president, Asif Ali Zardari, visited Dhaka to request Hasina not to reopen the war criminals’ case. Ispahani conveyed the message that any attempt to reopen these cases would adversely affect relations between the two countries. Ispahani also met Begum Khaleda Zia. Hasina, however, did not accept his warning kind of request.
Pakistan not only disliked Hasina’s idea of prosecuting war criminals, it is widely believed that at the instance of Zia Ispahani and the ISI, a mutiny took place in the border guarding force of the Bangladesh. The mutiny in the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) nearly swept away the Sheikh Hasina government. Hasina could control the situation only by showing great courage.
The BDR mutiny failed in toppling Hasina government but it managed to delay the start of war crime trials. The government of Bangladesh however, now seems determined to complete it. This has caused discomfort to Pakistan, whose army too was involved in war crime. Moreover, it sees people prosecuted by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) as those who could have been used to further its strategic interests in that country.
This has made Pakistan criticise the ICT verdicts. It criticised when Abdul Qader Molla was hanged. It has expressed its “deep concern and anguish” over the capital punishments of Jamaat leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed and BNP leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury. Both convicts were once ministers in the BNP led government in Bangladesh. Chowdhury was also the political advisor of Khaleda. These two individuals collaborated in 1971 with Pakistan in killing hundreds of Hindus and committed other atrocities over the local population.
Pakistan however still denies that its army committed any war crime in Bangladesh. Pakistan is mentioning the 1974 tripartite agreement as the bedrock of relations between the two countries. It says that as part of the agreement, the government of Bangladesh had decided not to proceed with the trials as an act of clemency. On the contrary, the feeling in Bangladesh is that the 195 Pakistani soldiers against whom Bangladesh had collected specific evidences of genocide can still be tried in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It is believed that the country signed the 1974 agreement because Pakistan held 203 Bangladeshi officials hostage for its 195 officers of very high ranks. Moreover, “clemency” has no bearing on the trial of those who committed genocide as per the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report of 2009 titled “International Law and United Nations Policy on Amnesty.”
Interestingly, International organisations like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and even the UN have taken queer stand on the implementation of war crime verdicts. They say that the trial procedure was flawed. They also criticised the practice of hanging of criminals in general. Strangely, the same organisations have nothing to say in the case of Pakistan where the hanging is happening more frequently of those people whom the Pakistani state especially its military considers dangerous. These people are being tried in military courts and then hanged. Both Pakistan and the US are among the top ranking nations where hangings take place. Unfortunately, these international organisations have chosen to remain quiet in those cases.
The Bangladesh government however finds the Pakistani reaction as unacceptable and nothing less than brazen interference in its internal matters. It has advised Pakistan not to make unfounded comments about the independent judiciary of a sovereign country. The reaction of Pakistan has enraged the government of Bangladesh. It has revived their old wounds. The people in Bangladesh now feel that the Pakistani concern for war criminals once again proves beyond doubt their direct involvement in mass atrocities committed during the war.
The Sheikh Hasina government has shown enormous courage in going ahead with the war crime trials in the face of pressure from the western powers and international human rights groups. India has also assured Bangladesh that it will support the country in case the issue is raised at any global forum. The successful completion of war crime trials would prove to be an important chapter in the history of Bangladesh. It will give justice to millions of people who had suffered at the hands of Pakistan army and their cohorts in Bangladesh known as Razakars. By criticising it, Pakistan has only exposed itself that it remains remorseless and still carries over the bigotry and racism that brought about the cataclysmic events of 1971.
*Anand Kumar is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]