Gwynne Dyer: Genocide trials in Bangladesh

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      Genocide is always a difficult crime for courts to deal with, and all the more so when it happened 42 years ago. But Bangladesh is really making a mess of itlargely because most of the old men on trial are leading members of a political party that is part of the country’s official opposition.

      “It is undeniable that a massive genocide took place in the then East Pakistan,” Justice Anwarul Haque said on July 17 as he imposed a death sentence on Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the Secretary-General of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. “This massacre can only be compared to the slaughter by Nazis under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.”

      That is an exaggeration, but not a very big one. The official Bangladeshi estimate is that 3 million people were killed, and 200,000 women were raped, by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators during the independence war of 1971. Few countries have had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh.

      For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But it was always controlled by the western half (today’s Pakistan), and when it attempted to break away in 1971 the Pakistan army tried to drown the independence movement in blood.

      It was aided by local paramilitary groups, made up mostly of pious Muslims who believed that Pakistan must be preserved as the single home for all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Initially they targeted secular intellectuals and the Hindu minority for murder, but in the end they were slaughtering whole villages that supported the nationalist cause. The killing lasted for nine months.

      Eventually the Indian army intervened and the Pakistani forces were forced to surrender. But the Pakistani soldiers were all sent home, and the leaders of the local paramilitary forces that fought alongside them fled abroad. And then, after some years in exile, the leaders of the genocide came home again and went into politics.

      They came home because a military coup in 1975 virtually exterminated the family of Mujibur Rahman, the secular politician who led the country to independence. The generals who wound up in power tried to win popular support by pushing an Islamic agenda, which left the returned exiles free to found the Jamaat-e-Islami Party. By the 1990s, when democracy returned, they were even serving as junior partners in governing coalitions.

      Their senior coalition partner was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, created by one of the generals and still led by his widow, Khaleda Zia. The other main party, the Awami League, is led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the martyred “father of the nation”, Mujibur Rahman. The two women loathe each other, and their bitter rivalry has dominated and often paralysed Bangladeshi politics for the past 20 years.

      Sheikh Hasina promised to put the perpetrators of the genocide on trial in her election platform in 2008. She won by a landslide, and the trials began in 2010. There was strong international support for her decision at first, but the conduct of the trials has left much to be desired. Most of the accused were certainly implicated in the killing, but the BNP has quite rightly accused the government of politicising the trials.

      The Jamaat-e-Islami has portrayed the trials as an attack on Islam, and when the first death sentence was handed down in February there were violent nationwide protests by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Youth League, leaving about 150 people dead. When the first life sentence was given out a few days later, hundreds of thousands of other young people demonstrated to demand the death penalty for all of those convicted.

      They were driven by the fear that if the BNP wins the next election (due by January), then it will amnesty all the surviving Jamaat leaders to preserve its electoral alliance with the Islamist party. The Awami League has responded to their demand by passing a new law that shortened the time allowed for appeals, so that they can be hanged before the next election. Lynch law.

      There is a way out of this, and it could end the 20-year stalemate in Bangladeshi politics. In a poll before the last election, four out of five young Bangladeshis said they wanted to see the perpetrators of the genocide brought to trial: the crimes have not been forgotten. So give them what they want, but don’t kill anybody.

      The Awami League said that it was setting out to exorcise “historical ghosts”, and it can do so without hanging old men. Nor does the BNP need to preserve its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami: the party only got three percent of the vote in the last election.

       So let the convictions stand but don’t hang anybody—most of them will be dead in a few years anywayand just move on. It would take more statesmanship than either party has shown in the past, but it would open the way to a better future for the country.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



      What is genocide?

      Jul 18, 2013 at 7:45pm

      Genocide happened in the Americas 2-3 centuries ago. Genocide happened in Germany 70 years ago. Genocide is happening in Palestine now. Genocide is the usual state of affairs. It's only the powerful that get to decide what genocide is.

      I Chandler

      Jul 19, 2013 at 8:54am

      Was this a civil war? Civil War is an oxymoron. The American civil war was ugly. Refugees are often resented by locals. Millions of Mexican refugees were deported from the US in the 1930's.

      Your story forgets the prelude. At Khulna, for example, there was a kind of genocide, but it was perpetrated by Bengalis against the non-Bengalis migrants who had fled India at partition. The migrants were killed in slaughter houses that had been methodically set up inside the jute mills:

      Archer Blood was an American diplomat in Bangladesh.
      The Blood telegram (April 6, 1971) was seen as one of the most strongly worded Dissent Channel messages ever written by Foreign Service Officers to the State Department.It was signed by 29 Americans. The telegram stated:
      " Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak[istan] dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy,(...) But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally..."


      Jul 19, 2013 at 11:46am

      actually it is the same government that pardoned 195 listed war criminals in 1972, all of whom were paki army officrs. these convicted islamists wernt even on that list and in 2010 they became war criminal. when the civil war ended these soon to be hanged islamists were roaming free.
      with these so called trial this gov is setting a trend of eliminating politicians through judiciary. dont be amazed if most of the top officials of current gov are hanged when opposition comes to power.


      Jul 19, 2013 at 6:53pm

      how is it the same govt.? it doesn't have the people that were there in 1972 and this promise was made in the 2008 election after Jamaat-e-islami politicians who came back to Bangladesh after a few years when the army took over, were linked to the main perpetrators in the Pakistani army as their facilitators in the genocide.

      Sure Khaleda Zia and her islamist cronies would like to hang all democrats when they come to power again but they would have to invent an imaginary crime. This crime against humanity actually happened and a nation that doesn't excorcise the ghosts of its past is always haunted by them.


      Jul 20, 2013 at 12:35am

      I trial was ongoing and many were convicted until 1975 when a military dictator Zia stopped the process and freed all the convicted war criminal. This is just a continuation of what was left unfinished.


      Jul 20, 2013 at 2:55am

      You urge letting the war criminals go scott free, as they are "old men". Did they have mercy on old men and women who they and their henchmen killed in 1971? Were any victims of Razakar and Al-Badr militia spared because they were old?

      Even today, the World War 2 Nazis are discovered and convicted. That the Jamat leaders were not tried earlier is a sad chapter in Bangladeshi history. But age should never be a barrier to trying them and then carrying out the sentences.


      Jul 20, 2013 at 3:40am

      Just to clarify, you said BNP has quite "rightly" accused the government of politicizing...... Well, if even it was not politicized, I don't think the verdict would be different, except if it would be reversely politicized by BNP. Ninety percent of people know those are the war criminals, those who tend to oppose are their political cronies.
      Another thing, please do not try to impose your values on others. Not having death penalty is your value and we respect it and never demand a criminal in your societies to be given that sentence out of respect to your legal system. Please respect ours and do not talk ambiguously to spread wrong messages. Please know that we don not have the same infrastructure that you have in assuring continuity of a non capital punishment for those who deserve a capital one what you have very rightly mentioned. BNP is just waiting to come back to power and making those criminals ministers again.

      Arman Rashid

      Jul 21, 2013 at 5:05am

      A grand suggestion indeed !!! While the criminal justice system of the land allows and often administers death penalty for a single murder, we should go easy on the mass murders for their extra ordinary accomplishments, all for the sake of a "better future for the country". In most planets (including Earth) people may find this argument a bit absurd.

      It was also interesting to notice that the author of this article thinks that comparing the Bangladeshi genocide with the Holocaust is an 'exaggeration'. I'd ask her to kindly do the math. Murdering 3 million Bengalies in only 265 days vs 6 million Jews in little over 5 years; Does that still sound like an exaggeration?

      Disclaimer: This question may prompt a response quoting some apologist, from likes of Ms. Sharmila Bose.

      Jinho Choi

      Jul 25, 2013 at 2:54am

      The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.
      - Ioseb Besarionis je J̌uḡašvili, known to history as Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin