Day of reckoning

Print edition : November 04, 2011

Trial begins in the 40-year-old cases of crimes against humanity, and a Jamaat leader becomes the first to be charged.

in Dhaka

ON October 3, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a firebrand leader of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, became the first suspect to be formally charged by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), which is probing the charges of rape, genocide and other crimes against humanity committed during the liberation war of 1971. The tribunal was constituted by the Sheikh Hasina government on March 25, 2010, to try those Bangladeshis (then East Pakistanis) accused of collaborating with the Pakistan army and committing atrocities. With the opening of the war crimes trial, 18 months after the formation of the tribunal and four decades after the historic war, the Hasina government has virtually reopened the country's independence history. Horrendous crimes were committed during the nine-month-long war, which resulted in the secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan. Some three million people were killed, nearly half a million women were raped and over 10 million people were forced to flee to India to escape brutal persecution at home. The perpetrators of the crimes were not brought to book, and this left a deep scar on the country's political psyche. The impunity they enjoyed hampered political stability, saw the rise of militancy, and destroyed the nation's Constitution.

So, the commencement of the trial is a landmark event in Bangladesh, which will be celebrating 40 years of independence in December. The nation has been waiting for the judicial process against war crimes to take place not only to seek a remedy for past wounds but also to remove a national stigma.

Seventy-one-year-old Sayedee, who is one of the key leaders of the country's largest Islamist party, was present in the ICT dock when the charges were framed. He described the 4,000-page charge sheet against him as untrue and denied all the allegations. The three-member tribunal chaired by Justice Nizamul Huq has fixed October 30 for the next hearing when the prosecution will make an opening statement.

The charges against Sayedee include involvement in the killing of more than 3,000 unarmed people, rape, arson and loot, abduction, forcible conversion of Hindus and collaboration with the Pakistan army. The charges carry a maximum sentence of the death penalty. The prosecution said Sayedee was an active member of the Peace Committee' and the Razakar Bahini', which were formed by Pakistan's military authorities to suppress the Bengalis' quest for freedom.

Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, escorted by security personnel, emerges from the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka on October 3.-AFP

While framing the charges, the tribunal specifically pointed out 20 incidents, including those of genocide, after narrating the circumstances of the liberation war and its history, and said the report described Sayedee as a member of the Razakar Bahini.

The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Golam Arif Tipu, said: The official trial has kicked off, this in itself is big news for which we had been avidly waiting for long.

Apart from Sayedee, Jamaat-e-Islami chief Matiur Rahman Nizami, secretary-general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed and two assistant secretariesgeneral, Mohammad Kamaruzzaman and Abdul Quader Molla, have been detained on similar charges. A senior leader of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, who was parliamentary affairs adviser to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and a former Minister in the BNP government, Abdul Alim, have also been arrested on similar charges.

The trial of war criminals is not just a fulfilment of the Hasina government's electoral pledge but a step towards meeting a national obligation to the judicial process. It is going to be an acid test for Hasina in view of the strong resistance to the trial by the BNP and its ally, the Jamaat, as also the fundamentalist lobby. The challenge to the trial may be massive if the political opposition manages to convince the people of the administration's failure to meet their needs and expectations.

Khaleda Zia has already thrown a direct challenge to the trial by calling the tribunal a partisan body. She demanded the release of the Jamaat leaders and described the legal process as a mockery of trial. Khaleda's latest stand vis-a-vis the Jamaat-e-Islami, the most organised fundamentalist party, has made analysts conclude that she is determined to be with political Islamists in her future political course, ignoring the implications of such an association. Many observers feel this was expected because the BNP's founder, General Ziaur Rahman, rehabilitated the war criminals in politics and Khaleda, his widow, completed the process when she was in power twice.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during a visit on May 15, 1971, to a refugee camp at Udarband, Silchar, where women and children from East Pakistan were sheltered.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The ICT is a domestic tribunal under a domestic law. Law Minister Shafique Ahmed assured the people that the trial would be fair and transparent and that the victims would get all legal facilities on a par with international standards so that no questions could be raised about its competency.

To make the law, enacted in 1973, more acceptable, a recent amendment allowed the accused all opportunities to defend themselves, including the option to select lawyers of their own choice. Shahinur Islam, registrar of the ICT, said that although the tribunal was a domestic one, it maintained international standards. The Hasina government, which has sought international support for the trial, said it would be an open trial in a place where international observers could watch.

Public pressure in favour of the long-delayed trial has been mounting. The Hasina government recently faced huge criticism from the pro-liberation political parties, civil society and freedom fighters' organisations for the delay in framing charges against the accused persons and not arresting others, such as Golam Azam, whose names are synonymous with genocide, rape and torture. However, the first formal charge made by the tribunal has removed the doubts to some extent.

In the face of the alarming rise of religious extremism over the years, the overwhelming majority in Bangladesh want to see the war criminals tried and religious extremism checked at all cost. They link the growth of Islamist militancy with the failure to try the war criminals. In 2008, when Bangladesh held its last general election, this mood was visible, mainly among the reawakened younger generation. The irony is that although the process of trial of the Pakistani collaborators was initiated soon after Bangladesh got independence, the attempt got frustrated following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father, in 1975. The 195 Pakistani war criminals were allowed to go back to their country along with over 90,000 prisoners of war who had surrendered to the India-Bangladesh Joint Command in Dhaka on December 16, 1971.

Beginning with Operation Searchlight' on March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army perpetrated widespread violations of human rights with support from local Islamist militias. While India and the former Soviet Union strongly opposed the atrocities and supported East Pakistan's cause to secede, the United States, China and Saudi Arabia virtually reinforced the Pakistani position on varying grounds. Against the background of this international polarisation, the birth of Bangladesh, despite being a bloody one, remained the least discussed topic.

Members of the Razakar Bahini surrendering before the Indian Army in Noakhali district of Bangladesh.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A well-known researcher on genocide, R.J. Rummel, in his book Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900, states: In East Pakistan [General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan and his top generals] also planned to murder its Bengali intellectual, cultural, and political elite. They also planned to indiscriminately murder hundreds of thousands of its Hindus and drive the rest into India. And they planned to destroy its economic base to insure that it would be subordinate to West Pakistan for at least a generation to come. Women were tortured, raped and killed. With the help of its local collaborators, the Pakistan military kept numerous Bengali women as sex slaves inside their camps and cantonments. Susan Brownmiller, who conducted a detailed study, has estimated the number of raped women at over 400,000.

Virtually every Bangladeshi household has its own horror story to tell from 1971, but it is somewhat difficult to gather direct proof after so many decades, particularly when much of the evidence may have been lost. Despite the difficulties, the investigators and the prosecution say that they have collected enough evidence to prove their cases. The prosecutors have reportedly completed investigations in the case of some other prominent accused, including BNP leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, and are set to submit the formal charge sheets in November.

Almost every household in Bangladesh still bears the scar of the tragedy. When the Pakistan military and its local supporters ran amok, the Indian media were full of traumatic tales of horrifying persecution of unarmed civilians. Even Western journalists filed vivid reports. Alan Hart of BBC Panorama, reporting on the horror, said: They'd been hacked to death with knife and clubs. From some of their wounds blood was still gushing. And when you thought they were dead and finished they weren't. They went on twitching, some of these bodies, for several minutes. These are the images that I captured for my first film report from inside.

John Drewey of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation said: I found it impossible to shut away the memories of what I saw, in the refugee camps of West Bengal and along the trails leading out of East Pakistan, in that corner of my mind reserved for other horrors I witnessed during the wars I covered in Korea, Congo, Egypt, Vietnam and Biafra. Stanley Buke, another Western journalist, lamented: It is thought-provoking to realise that in the First World War people were horrified by the sinking of Lusitania with the loss of a few hundred lives. In the Second World War people were shocked by the bombing of Hiroshima at a cost of 150,000 lives. Today the world is indifferent to a tragedy affecting millions.

Peter Dunn, photographer of The Sunday Times, wrote: A press photographer can usually tell himself that he is doing some good no matter how gruesome the photograph he is taking. But in Bengal the panacea was denied to me. I felt completely and utterly inadequate.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.-ATUL YADAV /PTI

After a visit to refugee camps in West Bengal and Tripura, the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, said in a report: I can tell you that not until you see it first-hand can you begin to understand the plight of the people, and the forces of violence which continue to create refugees and increase the toll of civilian casualties. The Government of India, as it first saw this tide of human misery begin to flow across its borders, could have cordoned off its land and refused entry. But, to its everlasting credit, India chose the way of compassion. While the magnitude of the problem staggers the imagination, the individual accounts of the people who have fled East Bengal tear at your heart.

Sydney Schanberg, at that time a New York Times reporter, described the Pakistani crackdown in March 1971 as a pogrom on a vast scale in a land where vultures grow fat. Oxfam, an international relief organisation, submitted a document, The Testimony of Sixty, to many Western governments and the United Nations on October 21, 1971, seeking urgent international assistance to end the brutalities and help the millions of refugees in the Indian States contiguous with Bangladesh.

Among the 60 prominent people and Western eyewitnesses who narrated the harrowing tales was Mother Teresa. She said: I have been working among the refugees for five or six months. I have seen these children, and the adults, dying. That is why I can assure the world how grave the situation is and how urgently it must help. The appeal is to the world and the world must answer.

Leading civil society groups and human rights activists in Pakistan have condemned their military's brutality in the former East Pakistan and have been demanding a formal apology to Bangladeshis. After the first charge was accepted by the ICT, one of the leading Pakistani dailies, Daily Times, commented in an editorial, Closing old wounds, on October 5: In a landmark move, Bangladesh is finally seeking closure for the atrocities it suffered during the 1971 war for the liberation of East Pakistan.

About the Jamaat-e-Islami, the newspaper remarked: What was the Jamaat's role in the 1971 war? To aid the Pakistan army's crackdown, it formed paramilitary wings called Al-Badr and Al-Shams to fight the Bangladesh Liberation Army (Mukti Bahini). These wings contributed immensely to the killing spree against intellectuals and activists. As if the Pakistan army were not vicious enough, these haywire groups added more fuel to the bloodshed and carnage.

The newspaper also commented: Pakistan could learn a thing or two from Bangladesh. The atrocities perpetrated against East Pakistan are a blot on our national conscience. Not only did they result in the obliteration of united Pakistan, Pakistan has seen history repeating itself within its own borders in Balochistan.

For Bangladesh, the war crimes trial is no ordinary trial but one that answers the innermost urge of an aggrieved nation and addresses the travails of countless bereaved families, widows and orphans, and the wounded and the immobilised.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor