Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Bangladesh: Another Verdict for War Crimes

S. BINODKUMAR SINGH

On October 1, 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT-1) sentenced to death the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) standing committee member and six-time Member of Parliament (MP) [sitting MP from Rangunia constituency of Chittagong District since 2008], Salauddin Quader Chowdhury (64), for war crimes during the Liberation War of 1971. The tribunal found him guilty on nine of 23 charges that were leveled against him. He was held guilty for the Maddhaya Gohira Genocide; the murder of Nutun Chandra Singha; genocide at Jogotmollopara; the murder of Nepal Chandra and three others; genocide at Unsuttarpara; the killing of Satish Chandra Palit; the killing of Mozaffar and his son; abduction and torture of Nizamuddin Ahmed; and abduction and torture of Saleh Uddin.

Chowdhury had been arrested in Dhaka on December 16, 2010, and was indicted on April 4, 2012.

Though this is the seventh verdict by the two ICTs, thus far, the judgement is extraordinary as the first conviction of a BNP leader. All the earlier six verdicts, were against Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leaders. While four of them had received death sentences, the remaining two were awarded life imprisonment. While JeI ameer (chief) Ghulam Azam (91), and, assistant secretary general of JeI Abdul Quader Mollah were originally sentenced to life imprisonment, the Supreme Court, on September 17, 2013, converted Mollah sentence to the death penalty. Indeed, there had been widespread protests across the country demanding death for Mollah after the ICT-2’s February 5, 2013, judgement.

A total of 13 high profile leaders, including 11 of the JeI and two of BNP, the latter including Chowdhury, have so far been indicted for the War Crimes. The other BNP leader facing trial is former minister, Abdul Alim. Alim, arrested on March 27, 2011 from his residence in Joypurhat District, was indicted on June 11, 2012.

As expected, soon after the October 1 verdict, as had happened after each of the six earlier verdicts, violent protestors hit the streets across the country. As many as 13 people have been injured in two incidents of violent protests since October 1 (all data till October 6, 2013). According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 171 persons, including 74 JeI-ICS cadres, 88 civilians and nine Security Force (SF) personnel have been killed in street violence since January 21, 2013, when the first verdict in the War Crimes Trials had been delivered. As many as 2,795 JeI-ICS cadres have been arrested for their involvement in 202 incidents of violence over this period.

Indeed, on May 28, 2013, the BNP had threatened to overthrow the Government through a street movement, when BNP standing committee member Barrister Moudud Ahmed declared, “If the Government favours violence skipping the path of dialogue, we’ll ensure its fall through violence, but we don’t want violence in the country… we want peace and discipline.”

Moreover, signaling the future course of the politics of vendetta, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia's adviser, Khandaker Mahbub Hossain, warned that, if voted to power, the BNP would try those involved in the War Crimes trials. Speaking in a similar vein, Mirza Abbas, another member of the BNP standing committee, observed, “The nation has not accepted the judgment… If the verdict against Salauddin Quader is executed, the people involved with this [trial] will be charged with murder.” Likewise, Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal, chief of the Jatiyatabadi Jubo Dal (Nationalist Youth Party), the youth front of BNP, stated, “On completion of the tenure of this Government and Parliament, Bangladesh will be ruled by Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman. Servile ministers and judges will not be allowed to move around freely. They will be made to run around in their birthday suits and brought to trial at the people’s court.”

Not to be cowed down, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asserted, on October 3, 2013, “I believe that we will be able to complete trials of war criminals who committed crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971 so as to free the nation from stigma. The BNP cannot save them.” She accused the BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia of siding with war criminals and alleged that BNP-JeI activists have been killing people, setting them on fire, in order to save war criminals.

Further, disproving the BNP and its supporters’ claim that people were against the War Crimes verdicts, people across the social spectrum have expressed strong approval for the latest judgement, as they did of the past verdicts. Several hundred people of all ages burst into cheers shouting Joy Bangla (Victory of Bangladesh), Jonotar Joy Holo (People Triumphed) when the Tribunal announced its decision. Imran H. Sarker, spokesperson of the Gonojagoron Mancha, declared, “S.Q. Chowdhury not only committed genocide, he has challenged our independence many times in the last 42 years. The verdict proved that the war criminals have no place in independent Bangladesh.” Gonojagoron Mancha (People's Resurgence Platform) is demanding the death penalty for all war criminals. 

Likewise, Bangladesh Samyabadi Dal (Communist Party of Bangladesh), Bangladesh Jubo Union (the youth front of Communist Party of Bangladesh), United National Awami Party, and others, issued separate statements hailing the verdict and demanding its quick execution. Witnesses to S.Q. Chowdhury’s war-time atrocities also expressed satisfaction over the verdict. Mohammad Salimullah, who owned the Muslim Press in Chittagong District during the Liberation War and was the second prosecution witness in the case, wept as he said, “When I was being tortured in Goods Hill in 1971, I cried in pain and was thinking of my little daughter I left home … Today, these are tears of joy.” He urged the BNP not to oppose the verdict and to expel Chowdhury from the party’s standing committee.

Regrettably, however, an unnecessary controversy has been created by the leaking of parts of ICT-1’s verdict on Chowdhury prior to the delivering of the judgement. The Detective Branch has launched an investigation into matter, but the leak has undermined the credibility of the tribunal, providing an opportunity to those who are opposing the trials to hit back. Indeed, in its official reaction to the ICT-1 verdict on October 2, 2013, BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir announced an agitation programme, claiming, “We are expressing our condemnation of the Government for its evil attempt to eliminate opposition party politics in the country. We are astonished that SQC (S.Q. Chowdhury) was deprived of justice… The text of the ICT verdict was displayed on different websites even before its pronouncement. It was leaked from the office of an acting secretary in the law ministry.” The State Minister for Law, Quamrul Islam, while admitting that part of the verdict had been leaked, stated, “This is certain that the verdict has not been leaked from the ministry and such an allegation is baseless… People involved in the leak will be spotted soon.” Meanwhile, on October 3, 2013, the Detective Branch of the Police seized the computer on which the verdict delivered by the ICT-1 was drafted, in order to track down those involved in the ‘verdict leak plot’.

Hasina’s assertiveness in the aftermath of the Salauddin Quader Chowdhury verdict is appreciable, and it appears clear that her determination to bring the war criminals of 1971 is not faltering. Nevertheless, a long process remains before the trials and appeals can be brought to their eventual conclusion, and the elections of 2014 are quickly drawing closer. The Opposition parties have made their intention to reverse – indeed, ‘avenge’ – the war crimes trials, abundantly clear. Justice for the victims of the atrocities of 1971, and emotional and political closure for Bangladesh, are still distant prospects.

First published in SouthAsia Intelligence Review, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 14, October 7, 2013


S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management