By Manzoor Ahamed
The ongoing agitation launched by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) seeking a restoration of Caretaker Government system was, in fact a ploy to shield the senior Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) leaders now facing war crimes charges. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia’s rejection of the International Crimes Tribunal as partisan and her demand for the release of the top JEI leaders held as war crimes suspects underline fresh political challenges to their trial. Five detained JEI leaders, including its Chief Matiur Rahman Nizami, have been accused of committing crimes against humanity during the country’s Liberation War in 1971. Khaleda Zia’s demand has made senior JEI leaders happy as they see it as a success in their efforts to come closer to the main opposition party and jointly wage anti-government street agitations.
The trial of war criminals of 1971 was one of the major commitments made by Awami League (AL) in its election manifesto. After obtaining an overwhelming majority in the last parliamentary elections in December 2008, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina described it as a national demand. The parliament also passed a resolution calling upon the government to undertake speedy trial of all war criminals. This has set off panic in the ranks of the JEI whose senior leaders and cadres had brutalized freedom fighters in collaboration with the Pak occupying army.
AL’s resounding election victory in December 2008 was a strong endorsement for the promised trial. The endorsement was more glaring for the fact that a large chunk of young voters who, in spite of the fact that they were made to learn the distorted and truncated history of the liberation war, came out tin large numbers and voted for the AL.
Planning Minister A.K. Khandaker, who was the deputy commander-in-chief of the Liberation War forces and currently the President of the Sector Commanders Forum, a platform of the freedom fighters, which has been spearheading the nation-wide campaign to try the war criminals, thanked the Parliament for adopting the resolution. As the resolution was passed in the Parliament, the government is under an obligation to ensure trial of the war criminals. The commitment of the government was re-emphasized by the Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shafique Ahmed when he said, “Since it’s a resolution adopted by the Parliament, the government will now assume responsibility for the trial.”
Climb down in approach
Soon after formation of the AL-led Government, the he also remarked that the trial of the war crimes would be completed by the end of 2009. But since then there has been a climb down in the Al’s approach to trial of war crimes probably due to pressure from both within the party as well as outside. There are indicators that many senior AL leaders are not very keen to push through the trial as with the passage of time these leaders have developed family relations with the war criminals and as a result they are not in favour of their trail.
After the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April, 2009 it went all quiet on the trail front. There were a lot of speculations spreading around about the pressure of the powerful Saudi Kingdom not to proceed with the trials. The firm basis of those rumours were unveiled and attested, though by not naming any particular country, by the AL General Secretary and influential Minister Syed Ashraful Islam who disclosed, “the government is facing pressure from different quarters at home and abroad for not trying the war criminals of 1971”.
On line new media ‘bdnews24.com’ in news item stated that their correspondent in Islamabad quoting a senior Pakistani Foreign Ministry official reported that Pakistan has warned Bangladesh of cooling relations if Dhaka presses on with the war crimes trial.
Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told the outgoing Pakistan High Commissioner to Bangladesh Alamgir Bashar Khan Babar on May 12, 2010 that his country must resolve the issue of apologizing for the war crimes and killings of three million people in Bangladesh. But Pakistan continues to persist with its proclaimed policy ‘let bygones be bygones’ on this issue. Pakistan Government had earlier even sent a Special Envoy, Pervez Ishpahani, to Dhaka on February 23, 2009 to persuade Sheikh Hasina to abandon the trial of war criminals.
Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (GDNC) which has been at the forefront of the movement for trail of war criminals ever since the creation of Bangladesh has expressed dismay at the inordinate delay in announcing a definite time frame for completing the trial. GDNC held a rally in Dhaka recently demanding announcement of a roadmap for completing trial of war criminals failing which it threatened to launch an irresistible movement across the country.
The Government of Bangladesh has sought and received UN assistance in its efforts to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed in 1971. Four international war crimes experts, Louis Bickford, Priscilla Hayner, Bogdan Ivanisevic and Alexander Mayer-Rieckh, have been named to assist the administration. Amnesty International has also welcomed the government move, having called on the Bangladesh Government and political parties to address impunity for violations carried out in 1971 in the context of the independence war. “The failure to seek truth and justice for crimes against humanity and other serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed in 1971 has encouraged the persistent nature of impunity in Bangladesh,” said Irene Khan, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. Demands from civil society for completing investigations and initiation of trial for the crimes committed in 1971 have been gathering momentum. Past Governments have taken no action whatsoever to investigate or prosecute these crimes and no official commission been established so far to provide a comprehensive account of the events of 1971. “I hope that the initiative to seek UN assistance to address the 1971 war crimes marks the beginning of a process to heal the wounds of this war in the national psyche,” remarked Irene Khan.
The Bangladesh Government is reported to have asked Pakistan and the US, which supported Pakistan during the war, to provide Bangladesh with particular documents related to the war and evidence for the trail. The exact number of people killed by the Pakistan army and their collaborators during the 1971 Bangladesh independence war is not known. Most estimates put the figure at around one million and a further eight to ten million people, both Hindus and Muslims, had fled Bangladesh in search of safety in India. According to some reports, an estimated 200,000 Bengali women were raped by the Pak occupying forces and their local collaborators during the period. To date no one has been brought to justice for these heinous crimes.
The role as Pakistan collaborator
JEI apprehends that the noose would soon tighten around the neck of the entire top leadership of the party for its role as Pak collaborator during the liberation war in 1971. Some senior BNP leaders like Salauddin Qader Chowdhury would also come under the dragnet for the same. Pakistan would also be affected as the preliminary list of war criminals compiled by the freedom fighters include names of many senior Pakistan army officers and the cases are likely to come up in International Criminal Court. Pakistan will have to face harassment and ignominy in such an event. Indictment of JEI leaders will also bring to the fore the Saudi role in conjunction with Pakistan in 1971.
The leverage of a foreign country, no matter how powerful it is, should not be allowed to keep the Bangladesh Government hostage in deterring the implementation of an overwhelmingly endorsed election pledge of a freely elected government. The Bengali nation owes these trials to the martyrs as well as to the future generations. It is, indeed, a great challenge as well as an opportunity for the government of Bangladesh to validate the sovereignty of the Republic by neutralizing all international and domestic pressure to establish that it is the people of Bangladesh who hold the ultimate authority in deciding the course of their own destiny. Earlier it is done, the better. (Ceylon Today Online)