Dhaka’s War Crimes

Spearhead Analysis – 26.03.2013

By Zoon Ahmed Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Uprising Demanding Death Penalty of the_War Criminals of 1971 in BangladeshIn 2009, after a long wait of approximately 40 years, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was formed. Now three years after the ICT’s formation it has started to deliver its verdict. Cross examining victims and their family members who had endured the brunt of the 1971 war that led to the country’s creation. Like most walks down memory lane, that are aimed at providing closure, and culminating healthier societal and political relations, it has become a rather bitter experience in itself. The demand for trial has been reverberating in public discourse, but ignored amidst political expediency and narrow party interests.

Bangladesh’s foundational principles of secularism, socialism, democracy and Bengali nationalism (in contrast with the two nation theory) have been pushed into the peripheries. Politics based on religion has been legitimized, and while in theory Bangladesh’s very creation was premised on dismissal of the founding principles of Pakistan, one is to question the role of the state as pre-determined at the time of creation, or evolving? But politics in South Asia continues to remain about the past, rather than a current snapshot, receptive of shifting trends.

Over the years, religious political parties have integrated well into the nation’s successful transition to a multi-party democracy. However, their loyalties to the Bangali cause in 1971, a war in which 3 million perished, is unmatched. Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), secular nationalist parties, have not been above cashing on the growing popularity of right wing parties like the Jamaat and Khilafat Majlis, and their commitment to ‘secularism’ is seen as fair weathered. Radical Islamist parties have gained momentum and pose a strong opposition to the current democratic government.

Bengali politics:
in 1991 democracy was restored in the country after almost two decades of martial law. The strife between the civilian leaders and the powerful army has not been able to mar the image of their founding fathers, Mujib ur Rehman who was assassinated with his family in 1973. These decades spent by the nation patiently awaiting justice needed to be materialized by the AL government. 2005 witnessed a series of bomb blasts targeting the judiciary as mock trials were being held. Only a year after the democratic government assumed office in 1992, a mock public trial was held of people accused, following the election of Golam Azam (labeled a traitor by Sheikh Mujib) was elected as JI’s Amir.

Little became of the mock trial, but in 2009 as Haseena’s government assumed office, it was time to assuage the public demand for accountability. Formation of ICT under the International Crimes (Tribunal Act) passed by the Parliament in 1973 to punish the armed defense and auxiliary forces. However once the military took over under General Zia-ur-Rehman those sentenced by the tribunal were given Amnesty. In 1988 Islam was announced as the state religion, religious politics was made sacred constitutionally.

Side by side, while religious politics was becoming increasingly popular, so were the bitter sentiments towards the war criminals who had gotten away unscathed. The Awami League picked on this, and came into power under the promise that justice will be served. The party remained true to its goal, and allocated Taka 10 crore in the budget during its first session for the purpose. In 2010 the tribunal was formed, banned 40 people, mostly from the Jamaat to travel abroad and a list of 1,597 suspects was also published. With ‘non-technical’ procedure of the trial written in stone[i], films, tape recordings , newspapers were all brought forward to gather this evidence. AL was the political party leading the Independence struggle in 1971, and now they were again leading the demand for war criminals trial. At the time of partition the Jamaat, true to the two-nation theory, was opposed to the creation of a separate Bangali state. Recent cries for trial by civil society were also countered by JI under Jatiyo Muktijoddha Parishad.

However understanding the momentum in favor of the trials the Jamaat also managed to synchronize its manifesto with public emphasis on the freedom fighters[ii]. Another tactic used by the Jamaat to justify its posture in 1971 was to term it a civil war, not a quest for liberation. The term the Jamaat uses is not inaccurate. At the time of Independence there was an option of either remaining with Pakistan, or creating a separate homeland. All of Bengalis were not with the AL, and power and political structures determine to a great degree which side to pick. For the Jamaat, which supported the two-nation theory, it made sense to be on the other side of the spectrum.

Politicization of the Trial:
Given the active role of political parties at the time of war in 1971, the current political parties remain vulnerable to the verdicts. BNP remains one such example that withdrew from its support of the tribunal when a few of its leaders got arrested. It is no secret that the protests in support for the trail are being spearheaded by the Awami League alone, because it is the only political party that will not suffer in the process. Rather, with all other parties, including the most secular (BNP) facing the brunt of this development, the AL can only emerge stronger as a consequence.

In the public sector, the movement has become a divisive factor between the secular-minded and Islamists. This conflict between mindsets is common to Asian politics, and societies, that are in a constant struggle to define the role of religion. With time the differences between the two ideologies are only intensifying and labels like ‘Atheist’ or ‘Terrorist’ are used to mar the adversary. The Jamaat’s best come back time and again has been resorting to these labels. BNP’s strategy to discourage the campaign for trials was to generate sympathy for JI, by spreading rumors that these leaders were being persecuted at the hands of the government.

The most successful narrative for those who were at odds with AL in 1971 was to create an external enemy, in this case India. Domestic issues in both Bangladesh and Pakistan have been traced back to Indian interference, and likewise for India. Today too Pakistanis and Indians continue to blame each other, because an outsider, a common enemy, becomes a uniting force.

Whether or not this narrative was based on factual evidence, or just the only solution to attain their common goal, the posture they assumed would also appeal to the secular mind. A blame game between the Hindus and Jamaat sparked, and with the election around the corner it became quite evident that official statements and actions were not complementing each other[iii].

AL’s commitment to Islam has been questioned, and the party, to appeal the religious mindset has promoted an image of Hasina wearing a head scarf. Simultaneously the AL’s cozy relations with India have become a frequent target.

The BNP on the other hand has ideological interests with the AL and practical ramifications if it doesn’t support the Jamaat. As an opposition party it suffers from the tribunal and growing popularity of the Awami League if this long awaited trial comes through successfully. BNP also feels that digging up graves of the past skews focus from the actual issues of misgovernance and corruption of the AL government, which was also high up on their election campaign. For the younger generation, channelizing funds and effort towards more productive projects that can re-shape the future, instead of accountability of crimes committed at the creation of the state, is the priority.

With the youth and older generations on different pages, and another divide between the ruling parties and all secular and religious oppositions, the War Crimes Tribunal has escalated violence, criticism and a debate regarding relevance.

Facing the brunt of on-going controversies, many feel the ICT is not impartial, and premises its verdicts on scanty evidence. For many who might have supported the cause under a secular ideology, it seems like the government is only preparing for re-election by throwing dirt on opponents and ignoring the real issues that affect governance today, and corruption in the government.  Politicization of the judiciary, which will overlook the ‘impartiality’ of the ICT, is another concern.

The government’s outright bias against the Jamaat[iv] and incident of abduction of a witness from the train in November 2012 have attacked the credibility and motive of this show to bring back old pain and suffering. Political motivations on both sides have escalated the entire process, and an unbiased narrative seems to be non-existent when the stakes on both sides are so high.

28 February 2013: the War Crimes Tribunal sentenced the JI’s party leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedee to death by hanging. Charged with 20 crimes under the International Crimes Act (1973), and a former Member of Parliament, Sayeedee’s death sentence has sparked violent protests throughout the country in which dozens of people have died. Previously too the tribunal’s verdicts have been met with outrage by the Islamists.
With escalating tensions between both sides, it is important for Hasina’s government to ensure the trials are as transparent as possible, and that other agendas of the government are also fulfilled within this term. As far as going down memory lane for the purpose of weakening political opponents is concerned, then no doubt the decision on the Awami League’s side to turn ‘justice’ of the ghost of their past into today’s national priority comes with political leverage as an incentive.


[i] Regarding evidence to be presented during the trial, the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 states: “A Tribunal shall not be bound by technical rules of evidence; and it shall adopt and apply to the greatest possible extent expeditious and non-technical procedure, and may admit any evidence, including reports and photographs published in newspapers, perio-dicals and magazines, film and tape-recordings and other materials as may be tendered before it, which it deems to have probative value.”
[ii] The Jamaat’s manifesto on “the rights of freedom fighters and their rehabilitation” reads:2

  • Those freedom fighters who have not been rehabilitated yet shall be rehabilitated with honour and dignity.
  • Good medical treatment shall be provided for the crippled and sick freedom fighters.
  • The Ministry of Liberation War Affairs shall be made more powerful.
  • Allowances for the freedom fighters shall be increased and their children shall be given stipends.
  • The Bangladesh Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust (BFFWT) (Bangladesh Muktijoddha Kalyan Trust) shall be made more effective.
  • Freedom fighters shall be included in the yearly hajj delegation.
[iii] The Hindus blamed the Jamaat-e-Islami as being behind the killing of minorities and looting of their homes, and ironically the Jamaat came up with an official statement condemning the violence against the Hindus

[iv] . The chief investigator of these trials, Abdul Matin, had to resign in 2010, soon after the constitution of the War Crimes Tribunal, for his alleged links with the Islami Chhatra Sangha, the then student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

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