Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bangladesh: Guilty at birth?

The politicians are still fighting the war of independence, 36 years on

AFP/Nizami's youth comes back to haunt him

THE army-backed interim government running Bangladesh since January has been struggling to bring corrupt politicians and businessmen to trial. Now it faces mounting pressure also to prosecute those involved in “war crimes” during the country's war of independence in 1971. In recent weeks, the big political parties—in a rare display of unity—have jointly demanded that the government ban “war criminals” from contesting the parliamentary election due late next year.

In effect, this would transform the government's “minus-two” strategy—the removal from politics of Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, leaders of the two biggest political parties—into “minus three”. Talk of war-crimes trials leads inexorably to one person, Motiur Rahman Nizami, leader of the third-largest party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Shahriar Kabir, the head of the Nirmul Committee, a group campaigning for the trial of the 1971 war criminals, says he has “no doubt” that the case against Nizami and his associates would stand up in a court of law, and wants the government to set up a tribunal.

Bangladesh became independent in December 1971, after a nine-month war that pitted Bengali-dominated East Pakistan against West Pakistan. The West's army, with its appeal to Islamic unity, had the support of many of East Pakistan's fundamentalist parties. The most extreme of these was the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose student wing became the main source of a pro-army paramilitary body called Al Badr, which was led by Nizami. Its members are alleged, among other atrocities, to have abducted and murdered dozens of senior journalists and academics.

Frequent calls for war-crimes trials have been ignored. This time, however, the unelected government's hand may be forced by the new unity among the big parties, and by support for the demands among parts of the army. The army may want only to clip Jamaat's wings and cleanse it of the taint of 1971. Many civilians, however, are motivated by distrust of religion-based politics.

Time is running out. Many witnesses, and many of the accused, have died. The head of the interim administration, Fakhruddin Ahmed, has said that the government would welcome prosecutions initiated by private citizens. But citizens' groups insist that the state must act as prosecutor in crimes of such magnitude.

So far, the interim government has not faced a serious political challenge. But election boycotts are a common tactic in Bangladesh, and could be used to put pressure on it—provided, of course, that its military backers decide to go ahead with the polls. Trials relating to crimes committed so long ago may seem irrelevant in a country facing so many immediate disasters. It is still reeling from Cyclone Sidr and devastating floods. But for those demanding trials, Bangladesh's very identity is at stake. Many agreed with Zafar Sobhan, a political commentator, when he wrote recently that the immunity enjoyed by Jamaat since 1971 is the country's “original sin”, polluting the body politic far worse even than financial corruption. Is there another country, he asked, where those, like Jamaat, “who opposed the birth of a country or those who collaborated with its enemies” have been rehabilitated? #

First published in The Economist, London on Dec 6th 2007