Sunday, September 05, 2010

Bangladesh Leads Way With International Crimes Tribunal

Graphics: Most of the suspects of the crime against humanity is in prison awaiting trial by International War Crimes Tribunal


AS CRITICISM over the lack of progress in Sri Lanka’s war inquiry is mounting and a defiant military regime in Burma resists increasing pressure for a UN war crimes inquiry, Bangladesh has high hopes for a war crimes tribunal that has been 40 years in the making.

Bringing to justice key perpetrators of atrocities committed during Bangladesh's 1971 liberation war for independence is the only way the nation will ever be able to heal, rights activists say.

“We must have this tribunal, not just to move the nation forward, but also for the crimes that were committed. For the nation to move forward, this must be taken care of,” said Akku Chowdhury, who fought in the war.

Chowdhury, who is now trustee of Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum, took up arms against the rampaging Pakistani military at age 18.

The 1971 war saw up to three million people killed and 400,000 women raped at the hands of Pakistani forces and their collaborators, while up to 10 million fled their homes and sought sanctuary in India, authorities say.

“On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani army unleashed a military operation which they called Operation Searchlight. This operation resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Dhaka city [the capital of Bangladesh, then East Pakistan],” he said, adding that while many who were responsbile are dead or have fled to Pakistan, an unknown number remain in Bangladesh.

An International Crimes Tribunal was set up in Bangladesh in March and five leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic political party, are on trial for their alleged collaboration with Pakistani forces.

Struggles in Other Countries
Elsewhere in Asia, Sri Lanka’s government-backed inquiry into alleged war crimes committed during a decades-long civil war that claimed the lives of up to 100,000 people has been criticized as a failure so far.

The US state department last month slammed investigators for failing to produce results after being tasked with looking into alleged war crimes committed in the closing stages of the conflict, which ended last year.

Questions over the impartiality of the government-appointed team were raised by the state department, while rights groups’ calls for an international investigation have been ignored by the government.

In August, the US supported calls for the UN to set up a war crimes inquiry in Burma, where the ruling military regime stands accused of violently cracking down on ethnic minorities.

In November, Burma will hold its first election in two decades, but, in a country where more than 2,000 political prisoners including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are forbidden from participating in the poll, human rights campaigners are unconvinced it will do anything more than attempt to legitimize military rule in a country.

Burma’s leadership has a history of reacting negatively to criticism from international circles and, unsuprisingly, calls for a war crimes inquiry have not been well received by the nation’s leadership.

In Timor-Leste, calls for an international tribunal to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed during a bloody 24-year occupation by the Indonesian military have been dismissed by the governments of both countries.

More than 100,000 people died in Timor-Leste between 1975 and 1999, and much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed by the departing Indonesian army and its collaborators.

Hopes for a Fair Trial in Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s war crimes trial has its own points of concern.

“It’s important to have the tribunal function properly and it’s important to have a fair and just trial in respect of the atrocities committed during our liberation struggle,” said Adilur Khan, secretary of human rights NGO Odhikar.

“There are lots of concerns how far it’s going to be a standard trial free from politicking,” he added.

“We are not sure how much they have succeeded in getting evidence. They have newspaper documents, they have other printed documents, but they haven’t developed much on the forensic side.”

There are also concerns about Bangladesh’s International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973.

Last year, citing changes in international criminal law since the 1970s, Human Rights Watch wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina saying, “additional amendments to the 1973 law are necessary to ensure that trials under the Act are carried out in accordance with Bangladesh's international human rights obligations, international criminal law and Bangladesh's constitution.”

Making a Stand
Despite worries about how the trial will play out, Khan says it is essential in any country to bring war criminals to justice to avoid perpetuating a culture of impunity.

“Any killing which goes without proper trial or ensuring justice keeps room open, space for impunity,” he said.

Between January and June this year, 61 people in Bangladesh were killed extra-judicially, 29 allegedly by the Rapid Action Battalion force and 25 allegedly by police, according to Odhikar.

Trying war criminals not only sets a precedent against such killings, but also shows a clear stance against religious violence, says journalist and human rights activist Shahriar Kabir.

“Bangladesh is a poor country. We know that. We have a lot of agendas—addressing poverty, corruption, day-to-day problems—but if you look into the election result of 2008, it was mainly because of the commitment to try the war criminals,” he said.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League pledged to set up the tribunal and subsequently won the 2008 general election with an overwhelming majority.

Bangladesh’s Supreme Court in July announced it was restoring secularism in the country’s Constitution, rejecting amendments made in 1975 that allowed religious political groups.

“Since the killers got impunity in 1971, they became very powerful in Pakistan and later they controlled everything in Pakistan and finally they created Al-Qaeda,” Kabir said.

Members of the Pakistan army responsible for the 1971 atrocities continued to dominate Pakistani politics with little international attention, bolstering a culture of extremism that rights groups want to cut out of Bangladesh.

“The trial is needed if you want to end killing in the name of political Islam,” he said.

Letting the World Know
After Bangladesh won its Liberation Struggle with support from India and the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s Cold War alliance with the United States meant that there was little pressure from the international community to investigate the atrocities.

“It’s important to establish the fact there was a genocide to the international community,” Chowdhury said.

“Globally, because the Vietnam war was at its height and there was Cambodia and all this came into focus, what the Pakistanis did in Bangladesh was overshadowed by the global scenario,” he said.

On the streets of Dhaka, everyone from fruit vendors to cigarette sellers is watching the tribunal's progress intently. Rickshaw puller Masud Rana, 32, said his father was lucky to escape with his life after becoming a freedom fighter during the liberation war.

“I support and want this trial, but I want it done properly. There was so much severe crime at that time so we all want justice,” he said. “There has to be a proper investigation.”

First published in The Irrawaddy (Covering Burma and Southeast Asia), September 4, 2010