Sunday, March 06, 2011
Bangladesh Faces Atrocities of Its Independence Era
IN THE last days of the bloody war that created this nation out of the eastern half of Pakistan in 1971, a gang of men abducted Dr. Alim Chowdhury, an eye surgeon and independence activist, from his home. Three days later, his battered body was found in a mass grave, his eyes gouged from his head.
His killers, members of a pro-Pakistan militia, were never punished. Moulana Abdul Mannan, the man who confessed to orchestrating the killing, according to a government investigation, went on to become a cabinet minister and member of the Bangladesh Parliament. He died in 2006.
Now, 40 years after Bangladesh’s independence struggle — one of the last century’s most wrenching conflicts, whose death toll may have exceeded one million people — the government here is seeking to prosecute individuals accused of atrocities like the one against Dr. Chowdhury.
The effort has touched a raw political nerve here and illustrates a conundrum of international law: Can a country, particularly a young and poor one, fairly try its own citizens for crimes against humanity?
Many of those accused of atrocities are not only still alive, but are also among the leading members of two of the main opposition political parties and have enjoyed long stints in power.
Six men have been arrested in connection with various crimes of the era, all of them major political figures. The government hopes to try them in a tribunal of its own creation in the coming months.
The Bangladesh tribunal is being closely watched, and its outcome could have wide implications.
Developing countries whose governments have been accused of atrocities, from Sudan
to Sri Lanka, have argued that international tribunals are selectively applied to poor nations and represent a new form of imperialism. A successful, fair and transparent trial in Bangladesh could be an important model, international justice experts say.
But it will not be easy. Indeed, the whole concept of international justice rests in part on the reality that in the aftermath of a horrendous conflict, national courts are likely to be too politicized to deliver impartial justice.
“From a human rights perspective, you want the national authorities whose job it is to punish these crimes to be able to do it,” said Richard Dicker, an expert in international justice at Human Rights Watch. “But that exists in tension with the overarching political imperatives.”
The quest for justice is particularly problematic in Bangladesh, where politics is a deeply personalized, polarizing business, and almost all of the accused are political enemies of the current government, led by Sheik Hasina Wazed of the Awami League Party.
Government officials argue that the trials are necessary and long overdue.
“The victims expect that in a civilized democratic country that there must be justice for them,” said Shafique Ahmed, Bangladesh’s law minister.
After decades of being derided as a basket case, in Henry Kissinger’s infamous assessment, Bangladesh is enjoying a season of stability and relative prosperity. Its current government was elected in a landslide in 2008, bringing back democracy after a spell of military-backed rule. Its economy has sprung to life, growing at about 6 percent last year. Healing the wounds of the independence era is a crucial next step, government officials say.
Bangladesh’s government has pledged to hold fair trials and has sought the help of Western governments and international officials, including Stephen Rapp, the United States ambassador at large for war crimes. Speaking to reporters here in January, Mr. Rapp said that Bangladesh could become a model for how to handle international crimes in a local setting.
“It’s important that these cases happen at a national level, close to the communities that were affected, close to the victims,” he said, “close to the families of the people who are accused, who can visit and watch and judge for themselves.”
Some Latin American countries have held successful trials for war crimes, Mr. Dicker said, but the perils of a local tribunal were evident in the trials of Saddam Hussein and his associates in Iraq. A cellphone video that emerged of Hussein’s hanging, and the pro-Shiite taunts that accompanied it, underscored the appearance of victors’ justice.
Such an outcome would only worsen the deep divisions here, opposition politicians argue.
“We are now convinced that it would not be possible for this government to deliver justice impartially and fairly,” said Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh National Party and Sheik Hasina’s archrival.
One senior member of her party is among the accused. The rest are members of Jamaat-e-Islami, a party that supported union with Pakistan during the war of independence and created several militias that were accused of killing tens of thousands of people.
Bangladesh was born in blood, and in many ways the cleavages opened by the war persist to this day. When Britain partitioned India, the mostly Muslim eastern part of Bengal Province was assigned to Pakistan. Other than a shared Islamic faith, the two halves of Pakistan had little in common, and more than 1,000 miles separated them.
In 1970, the Awami League, East Pakistan’s biggest political party, won a majority of seats in Pakistan’s Parliament. But leaders in West Pakistan balked at letting a Bengali-led party form a government.
The crisis gave way to war in 1971. The military unleashed a brutal assault on the independence movement. The death toll remains unknown, but hundreds of thousands of civilians died, untold numbers of women were raped and millions fled to India.
Bangladesh won its independence in December of that year, and resolved to try those who had helped the Pakistanis. But the troubled new nation soon fell into chaos and autocracy.
In 1975, the military overthrew the government, and the prime minister, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated with most of his family. Deeply impoverished and repeatedly hit by natural disasters, Bangladesh seesawed between military and civilian rule and was too busy trying to survive to delve into the past.
As a result, Bangladesh has never fully reconciled the split between Pakistan loyalists and those who fought for independence. Abdur Razzaq, a senior member of Jamaat-e-Islami and a lawyer, said that it was not a crime to oppose independence.
“It is 100 percent correct that they were in favor of Pakistan, that they prayed to God for a united Pakistan,” he said of the members of his party who had been accused of atrocities. “But it is 100 percent incorrect that these people were involved in war crimes.”
Like many opposition leaders, he argued that the poisonous political atmosphere in Bangladesh made fair trails impossible, and he said that a process of reconciliation like the one in South Africa at the end of apartheid would be more appropriate for Bangladesh. But victims and their advocates scoff at that notion.
“A decade after Nelson Mandela’s death, let’s get together and discuss whether South Africans are happy with the justice they got,” said Mizanur Rahman, who lost two uncles in the war and is now chairman of the Bangladesh Human Rights Commission. “Until and unless you put to rest this long history of impunity it will go on. It pinches your heart every moment of your existence.”
Another complicating factor is the death penalty. International courts have always avoided it, and most Western countries do not permit it, which will make it tough to win support for the tribunal from the
European Union and others. The war’s victims say it is necessary to execute the guilty to ensure that they are not released by future governments.
“You don’t know when Khaleda Zia is in power next time, will she let them all out of prison?” Shahriar Kabir, who has fought for the war crimes trials for decades, said, referring to a former prime minister. “All this time they are crying for the human rights of the perpetrators. What about the rights of the victims?”
Nuzhat Chowdhury, the daughter of Dr. Chowdhury, said that even if her father’s killer is dead, someone should be punished for the crimes of 1971.
“I saw my father’s killer become a minister in this country,” said Dr. Chowdhury, who like her father is an eye surgeon. “We were afraid to call ourselves the children of Alim Chowdhury. We need justice to heal.” #
First published in The New York Times, US, March March 5, 2011