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Friday, March 25, 2011

Bangladesh: War crimes and misdemeanours

Photo: Bangabir Kadir Siddique executing alleged Razakars at Dhaka Stadium in front of scores of foreign journalists and cheers from onlookers

Justice, reconciliation—or score-settling?

IT IS almost 40 years since Bangladesh’s independence and a year since a war-crimes tribunal set out to try those accused of committing atrocities during the bloodstained conflict that led to it. The tribunal is due to lay formal charges this month or soon after. Dozens of suspects live under travel bans. Even so, the country remains haunted by the terrible memories of war. The tribunal seems unlikely to achieve either justice for the victims or reconciliation for the country.

Bangladesh has said that as many as 3m people died in the conflict, though others put the figure lower. What is certain is that many thousands of civilians were killed in cold blood by members of what was then the West Pakistan army (which later became Pakistan’s army). Bangladesh is seeking to put in the dock not the main perpetrators of the genocide but their local collaborators, who helped identify victims and took part in the killings. Notable among those accused of collaboration are members of an Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which formed part of a coalition government with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 2001-06.

During the war, Jamaat’s student wing organised a militia, called Al Badr, to support the West Pakistan army. The party denies any part in the war crimes and its leaders say they were not members of Al Badr. But last August the war-crimes tribunal issued arrest warrants for five party leaders, including two former ministers. They have not been charged with war crimes (they are being held in jail on other counts) and are due to appear before the tribunal next month. Also in the clink and awaiting possible future war-crimes charges is a senior leader of Khaleda Zia’s BNP, now the main opposition. Officials say at least six more Jamaat leaders will be arrested on war-crimes charges, including the 89-year-old Gholam Azom, who led the party in 1971.

Partly because of the political implications, the war-crimes trials have run into trouble before they have even started. Emboldened by an unexpectedly good showing in municipal polls in January, the BNP has stepped up a programme of hartals (protest strikes) against the government. The timing is propitious: for separate reasons, one of the government’s main allies, Mohammad Ershad (a former dictator), has threatened to quit the ruling coalition.

Everyone believes the opposition would scrap the trials if it were to win the next election, which is due in 2013. And if history is any guide, it probably will win: no democratic government in Bangladesh has ever secured a second term. That gives the government less than two years to complete the trials. A formidable task.

The trials have a tiny budget of 100m taka ($1.4m). They are being held under a 1973 law which does not comply with international norms. The local prosecutors are widely seen as weak and inexperienced. In contrast, the defence team includes the counsel for the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, and a defence lawyer from the Special Court for Sierra Leone (which is trying Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president). The authorities have also denied entry to an American-based lawyer for one of the accused, the BNP’s Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, an adviser to Mrs Zia. His family says he has been tortured while in detention, which the government denies. The tribunal has yet to determine whether foreign lawyers may even appear to plead before it.

The chances that the trials will win international recognition appear slim. Initial enthusiasm for them among foreign governments has worn off. Many Western diplomats think the government has taken to using the courts to pursue rivals and enemies—as many say it did when it insisted recently that Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate, should retire as head of Grameen Bank, a microcredit institution. The war-crimes process was supposed to produce a measure of truth and reconciliation. It has taken an inauspicious turn. [ENDS]

First published in The Economist magazine, London, UK, March 24, 2011

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