The prime minister of Bangladesh was voted in on her promise of justice for the crimes of its foundation 40 years ago. This has not quite happened as planned, and has been the excuse for suppression of all political opposition
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, launched a coordinated assault in January 2010 on the Islamist order that has gripped her country for 30 years. She attacked its legal foundation. In 1979, Islamists had hijacked control of the state, amended the constitution, and transformed Bangladesh from a secular country to an Islamic republic. Through the Supreme Court, Hasina retrieved it: she nullified the 1979 amendment, and the world’s third largest Muslim nation became a secular republic again.
Since then, her centre-left Awami League Party has spared almost no expense to expunge the traces of hard-line Islam. Hasina (as she is known) has spent millions of dollars to rename public buildings that once honoured hard-line Islamists. She has re-written laws to protect women from having to wear Islamic head coverings. The government has granted itself the means to dismantle Islamist militant networks. A war crimes tribunal will address the atrocities committed by Islamists during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
But there is a dark side. Hasina is not too concerned about respecting the constitution, so there has been a crackdown on her political opponents, and on the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami, the most powerful fundamentalist political party, which claims 12 million followers. Hasina has used extreme methods to destroy the Islamists, as well as other regime opponents – methods that are incompatible with freedom, law and democracy. Now, as the state frays, and shortages of water, electricity and gas provoke riots, the crackdown threatens to further ignite the religious and political divisions of this impoverished country of 150 million people. Her radical approach threatens the democratic foundations she purports to uphold.
’So where’s the trial?’
Bangladesh’s Liberation War Museum is a small building in the poor Mirpur section of Dhaka, the capital. It was built to commemorate the victims of Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujipur Rahman, led the struggle, which was fought so that Bangladesh (then a province of Pakistan exploited by its Islamic rulers) could be a secular, independent nation. Pakistan’s retaliation was catastrophic. In nine months, its military liquidated the leadership of the Awami League. It murdered as many as three million Bengalis and raped some 200,000 women (the exact toll remains unknown and contested). Pakistani soldiers did not act alone: many Bengali Muslims collaborated with the Pakistani army, killing secular Muslims and Hindus in the name of preserving Islam.
Last year I visited the museum to meet survivors. Muhammed Abu Saeed, in his 40s, told me how Pakistani soldiers beat and tortured his brother, who was eventually shot and killed. Sheikh Shariful Islam Bablu was only 15 when a Pakistani mob beat him and then tried to slit his throat. He escaped, but is scarred. All the survivors were angry, but not at the Pakistani soldiers who committed the crimes and are now beyond reach, untouchable by courts or personal retribution. They want a trial of Bangladeshis. Saeed said, “If the Bengali collaborators are tried, the souls of our martyrs will have at least a little peace.”
Their wishes may come true. Bangladesh’s youth, who have had greater access, online, to stories, photos and videos from the war than past generations, now call for truth. “The younger generation have heard stories and have said, ‘It’s a genocide, so where’s the trial? Somebody has to answer’,” said Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University who has written several books on the 1971 war.
Hasina won a landslide election in 2008 by promising a tribunal, which she constituted in March 2010. The decision has been hailed by international jurists, for good reason. Done properly, Bangladesh’s tribunal could help abate the corruption and political squabbling that have crippled Bangladesh since its creation. It could also be an important model for the Muslim world. But instead of using the court’s energy to seek out hundreds of presumed war criminals, Hasina seems to have empowered it only to harass the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami. The witchhunt promises only more instability.
I met one of the “collaborators”, Muhammed Kamaruzzaman, now in his 50s and the official spokesman of Jamaat-e-Islami, which wants to turn Bangladesh back into an Islamic state. He rarely made a point without citing a supporting statistic or referencing a historical document, yet the facts of his own life do not tally. He therefore perfectly symbolises the role his party plays in Bangladeshi politics.
In 1971 Jamaat-e-Islami actively opposed Bangladesh’s independence struggle. “[It] had this emotional attachment with Pakistan. Because they thought that Pakistan is a homeland for the Muslims. How can we separate this country?” Kamaruzzaman asked. Yet the Pakistani army organised Jamaat-e-Islami as a radicalised militia, a proto-Taliban. Whether it committed war crimes is less clear. Kamaruzzaman was said to have run an interrogation centre where more than 300 secular nationalists were tortured and executed. But even if Kamaruzzaman were to be found guilty, his party cannot be held responsible. Nor were Jamaat-e-Islami members the only war criminals – most belonged to other political and religious groups. Any fair trial would make this clear.
Hasina has intentionally obscured these facts, describing Jamaat-e-Islami as a cabal of murderers, and assuming their guilt. When her government issued a list of 1971’s top 10 war criminals, she singled out the party’s leadership, including Kamaruzzaman. He protested his innocence to me, insisting that Hasina was motivated by political calculus, not facts. “Just for political purposes they have raised this issue. With this issue you can marginalise Jamaat-e-Islami. And for future elections it will be easy, smooth sailing for the Awami League.”
If Hasina harassed his party, Kamaruzzaman insisted, its younger followers might resort to violent militancy: “If Jamaat-e-Islami leaders are arrested…we do not know what will happen. We do not know how my sons, relatives, and friends will react. We are afraid some of them can go for underground militancy, for retaliation.” He has spent most of his career denying that Jamaat-e-Islami has any links to militancy, yet now flaunts such connections.
The controversy begins
In July 2010, Kamaruzzaman and half a dozen of Jamaat-e-Islami’s top officials, including its supreme leader, were arrested and paraded before the national media. Watching it on television felt like the dawn of a new era. But then the controversy began. At first Kamaruzzaman and his colleagues were not charged with war crimes, but with others that had nothing to do with 1971, including blasphemy against the Prophet, and murdering a bystander during a political rally.
The war crimes charges came only after the men were already in prison, and included corruption, money laundering, and links to terrorism. Then, in a move that outraged the Muslim world, Hasina banned the writings of the party’s creator, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, South Asia’s most influential theologian. Now Hasina is toying with the idea of banning religious parties. Observers say that her tribunal looks authoritarian. And it could backfire. “You can’t start labelling parties before the trial has started,” said Ameena Mohsin, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University. “The government is putting the entire process of the trial into question.”
The threat of violence is mounting. Jamaat-e-Islami activists have fought street battles with police, and have been arrested for possession of explosives. Kamaruzzaman’s threats seemed less like bluster and more like prophecy. Last November, unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails at the Dhaka residence of Bangladesh’s chief justice, who had ruled in favour of restoring secularism to the constitution.
Bangladesh appears to be following repressive secular regimes in the Muslim world, such as Egypt, Algeria and Turkey which all at one time sought to contain Islamist politics through strong-arm tactics.
Wider instability is spreading. Hasina has failed to address daily problems, such as food, water and electricity shortages, which have caused riots. Garment workers, protesting over poor pay, have burned dozens of factories in a vital industry. Recently, Hasina extended her ire to her largest political rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose members have been harassed and arrested. The BNP has faced off with Hasina’s party in street battles that have killed dozens and wounded more than 100. The army may be forced out of its barracks again, as it was in 2007, when fighting between the BNP and the Awami League resulted in many deaths. Bangladesh will be back where it started 40 years ago. Time may be running out.
Witnesses are aging and dying. Evidence is fading. “I want a peaceful trial, and very soon,” Bablu said. “There will not be another chance.”
First published in Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris, France, 4 June 2011