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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Bangladesh: Between Justice and Politics


“Abdul Bari had run out of luck. Like thousands of other people in East Bengal, he had made the mistake – the fatal mistake – of running within sight of a Pakistani patrol. He was 24 years old, a slight man surrounded by soldiers. He was trembling because he was about to be shot.”

So began an article published in June 1971 that chronicled for the first time the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army and its cohorts to prevent the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Long before the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) began to evolve in the 1990s, the article by Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas in the UK’s Sunday Times turned international public opinion against Islamabad and prompted India to intervene and end the war.

On Monday, a Bangladesh tribunal delivered its first verdict, sentencing Abul Kalam Azad, a Bangladeshi Islamic cleric and former student leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, to death for crimes against humanity. Eleven other suspects are awaiting trial. Azad was found guilty in absentia on numerous charges, including genocide, murder and rape. A former TV presenter, he has been on the run since last April and is believed to be in Pakistan. As a member of the Razakar Bahini, an auxiliary force that supported the Pakistani army, Azad helped to crush local resistance in East Pakistan.

Bangladesh says Pakistani troops and their local collaborators killed three million people and raped about 200,000 women during the nine-month war. In the infamous Blood Telegram, American diplomat in Bangladesh, Archer Blood, sent a cable to the U.S. State Department criticizing the U.S. government for its failure to respond to the “genocide” being perpetuated by the Pakistani military.

The scale of the killings would normally have shaken the conscience of the international community. However, unlike the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunals instituted to try war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Bangladesh genocide has received scant international attention. This lack of awareness has persisted, even as victims’ families and human rights groups have spent decades fighting for justice.

International politics are partly to blame. Pakistani troops were let off the hook as part of a broader post-war peace deal between India and Pakistan. Moreover, the Bangladesh Liberation War occurred at the height of the Cold War when the United States, allied with Islamabad, overlooked Pakistan’s atrocities as it sought the nation’s help as a conduit to establish diplomatic ties with China.

But this is now changing thanks to the tribunals. However, these tribunals— referred to as the International Crimes Tribunal— have been controversial since their inception. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has repeatedly expressed concerns over the efficacy of the trial, saying that the law under which the accused are being tried does not meet international standards of due process. Critics, including the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, have called the trials a “farce” and see them as a witch-hunt.

The accusation is not unfounded. Zia and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina are bitter political rivals and have often used state institutions to undermine one another. The Jamaat-e-Islami is an ally of the BNP, which sees the trial as an attempt by Hasina’s Awami League to undermine the BNP-Jamaat alliance.

The court’s standing received a further blow in December when Mohammed Nizamul Huq resigned as chairman of the tribunal. Nizamul left the post after being questioned by The Economist and having private emails published in Bangladesh that cast doubt on the tribunal.

Given the fractured and vindictive political climate in Bangladesh, the risks of new injustices occurring are very real. However, the conviction of a high-profile war criminal is the first tentative step towards closing a deeply haunting chapter in Bangladesh’s turbulent history. The opportunity must not be allowed to wither away.

First appeared in The Diplomat, January 25, 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013

War crimes in Bangladesh

Justice delayed: A first conviction for war crimes sparks controversy

MORE than 41 years after the deaths of as many as 3m people in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan, a Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal has given its first verdict. On January 21st it sentenced Abul Kalam Azad to death in absentia for genocide and murder committed during the nine-month war in 1971. The verdict is being seen as a victory for Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and her Awami League party, who have made the tribunal an important part of her term in office.

Bangladeshis have waited decades for justice and the aims of the tribunal are broadly popular, but critics say the process has been politicised to target allies of Sheikh Hasina’s main opponent, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There have also been questions raised about its impartiality. In December The Economist reported on contacts by e-mail and Skype between the presiding judge in one of the tribunals and a lawyer in Belgium who was not an official part of the court. The judge eventually resigned and was replaced. The verdict on Mr Azad came from a second tribunal.

In the judgment Mr Azad is described as a former leader of the youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a party in then East Pakistan and still Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party today. Its youth wing was the main source of paramilitaries supporting Pakistan in its efforts to prevent East Pakistan’s independence. Its members are alleged to have abducted and murdered dozens of civilians. Mr Azad himself was accused of killing at least 12 Hindus and of rape. He then became a well-connected political figure in Bangladesh and a presenter of popular Islamic television programmes. He fled the country last year and is believed to be in Pakistan.

Mrs Zia has found it impossible to distance her party from Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally whose support the BNP needs if it is to win the election, likely to take place this year. Among the ten other senior figures to be tried are two leading party officials, both former ministers in Mrs Zia’s 2001-2006 government. It may be that almost the entire leadership of Jamaat will be hanged before the polls. So, too, may two members of Mrs Zia’s party, including one of her close advisers. Sheikh Hasina will hope that the taint of 1971 will make the BNP-Jamaat alliance so toxic to voters that she will be returned to power.

First published in The Economist its print edition, January 26, 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bangladesh's watershed war crimes moment


The International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has delivered its first verdict, sentencing a former Islamist leader to death for crimes against humanity.

Abul Kalam Azad, a former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty in absentia on eight charges.

Tribunals set up nearly three years ago are trying alleged war crimes committed during the country's independence war against Pakistan in 1971.

The first verdict signals a major triumph for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has made prosecution of 1971 war crimes a key goal of her government.

From the beginning the tribunals have faced internal scepticism, as well international concerns expressed by such groups as Human Rights Watch.

Late last year the tribunal was shaken by newspaper revelations which led to the resignation of the presiding judge of one of the two courts.

But the government was quick to appoint a new judge, and the tribunals pressed ahead with proceedings, leading to Monday's first verdict.

Watershed moment
Mr Azad, who had gained fame in recent years as a television presenter of Islamic programmes, was accused of murder, rape, torture, arson and looting - mostly against members of the Hindu community in the central district of Faridpur.

He went on the run in April last year and is thought to be in Pakistan.

In 1971, he was a junior leader in Jamaat's student wing and a member of the Razakar Bahini, an auxiliary force set up to help the Pakistan army by rooting out local resistance.

The Razakars were notorious for their operations targeting Hindus as well as civilians suspected of being sympathetic towards Bengali nationalists.

The guilty verdict marks a watershed in Bangladesh's tortuous history, where for 40 years families of victims have campaigned relentlessly to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Bangladesh says up to three million people died during the war, mostly in massacres by the Pakistan army and their local Islamist allies, the Razakar and Al-Badr forces.

Following Indian intervention in December 1971, more than 200 Bengali intellectuals, doctors and engineers were kidnapped and murdered by the shadowy Al-Badr.

Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, is alleged to have been behind the creation of Al-Badr, providing it with leadership, recruits and inspiration.

Jamaat's leader at the time, Ghulam Azam, is alleged to have inspired the killing of the intellectuals which took place just days before the Pakistan army surrendered to Indian and Bangladeshi forces. He rejects the allegations.

Bangladesh was unable to put on trial Pakistani officers accused of war crimes as they were released as part of a broader peace deal between Delhi and Islamabad.

But the question of their local collaborators and their role in the genocide remained unresolved.

Fractious politics
Since 2011, six top Jamaat leaders, including Ghulam Azam who is now in his nineties, have been in jail, facing various charges of crimes against humanity.

Most observers in Bangladesh agree that there is widespread public support for the trials, which kicked off in 2010 when the first tribunal was set up.

But the fractious and divisive nature of the country's politics was exposed once again, when major parties failed to close ranks even when dealing with an issue as emotive as trials of war crimes.

While the ruling Awami League has made the trials one of its key goals, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP has been less forthcoming.

The BNP has maintained an electoral alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami since 2001 and many in the party feel the alliance gives them their best chance of returning to power.

But the BNP is unable to oppose the trials.

The war of liberation and what Bangladeshis term "the genocide" of 1971 remain powerful and emotive issues in the public psyche.

The BNP's tactic has been to support the need to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice, with a warning that the trials should not be used against political opponents.

The warning has as much to do with protecting some of its own leaders who may be implicated, as to put Jamaat minds at rest.

One senior BNP leader, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury is already in jail. He denies a number of charges.

Skype 'scandal'
The tribunal itself suffered a set-back last month, when hours of conversation over Skype between one of its presiding judges and a Brussels-based lawyer were revealed in the press.

The exposure came just days before the court was due to deliver the verdict in the trial of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a top Jamaat leader and one of the country's most charismatic and controversial Islamic preachers.

Defence lawyers claimed the judge had acted improperly and the conversation showed the accused could not expect a fair trial.

The judge swiftly resigned, triggering calls for the trial of Mr Sayeedi to be recommenced from the beginning.

The tribunal's new presiding judge rejected the calls for retrial, but agreed to have the two legal teams make their final submissions again.

Monday's verdict goes some way to reassure the public that the trial process has not lost its way.

It is important for both the tribunals and the government to demonstrate such resolve, as the trials have already taken on an international dimension.

Recently, Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote to his Bangladeshi counterpart, calling on him not to put Ghulam Azam to death if he is found guilty.

The letter triggered protests across the country, as many people regarded it as a flagrant interference in Bangladesh's judicial process.

Observers now expect the verdicts in the cases of senior Jamaat-e-Islami leaders such as Mr Sayeedi and Mr Azam to follow rapidly.

First appeared in BBC online, 21 January 2013

Sabir Mustafa is BBC Bengali editor

Rooppur Nuclear Deal Between Russia And Bangladesh


Few critical questions have been raised so far by Bangladesh’s intellectual community regarding the deal towards construction of two nuclear power plants in Rooppur. Yet questions do need to be posed. On November 2 last, Russia and Bangladesh signed the long awaited nuclear power agreement on the supply of two 1000 Megawatt reactors. 

Significantly, the deal was closely followed up by a major defense deal worth $1 Billion Dollars for delivery of armored vehicles, transport helicopters and other weaponry. This last deal was sealed during Sheikh Hasina’s recent Moscow visit. The given pattern - of a deal facilitating the purchase and transfer of nuclear technology paving the way for enlarged armament transfers – is broadly similar to the pattern set by the US and India when they signed their framework agreement on nuclear cooperation in 2008 (*). Here, an expansion in US exports of armaments to India was the hidden, reverse side of the nuclear deal. And while ostensibly there is no direct link between the two types of trade, - both the US and Russia evidently are equally eager to enlarge both their sales of nuclear technology and of weaponry towards countries of the Global South. Yet whether the Rooppur deal and the sequential defence deal – both involving huge sums of public money - are really in the interests of Bangladesh? This urgently needs to be scrutinized.

Here I will limit myself to last November’s deal on Rooppur, which Bangladesh’s nuclear lobby undoubtedly will have celebrated as a grand success. After all the dream to provide Bangladesh with nuclear energy is longstanding, dating from the time Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan. The first critical point to be noted is the fact that few details regarding the contents of the nuclear agreement have been revealed to Bangladesh’s public. From the ‘self-evaluation report’ submitted by Bangladesh to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the middle of 2012, however, it appears that the two nuclear reactors to be supplied by Russia to Bangladesh will be of VVER-1000 design. This is a water-cooled and water-moderated reactor reportedly devised in the late 1970s. Towards the cooling of the nuclear fuel rods, water is pumped into the primary circuit of the reactor and kept under constant pressure to prevent it from reaching boiling point. And after its use in the reactor complex, the (polluted) water needs to be released, i.e. dumped back onto the environment. This immediately raises the question as to the consequences of Rooppur for the fisherfolk in Ishwardi, the subdistrict of Pabna where Rooppur is located. Will biodiversity in the reactor’s surrounding water bodies be affected, yes or no?

Further pertinent questions arise once we try to envision how Rooppur’s nuclear fuel rods will be supplied and disposed of. To some extent the arrangements chosen imply that Bangladesh’s own population will not itself be burdened with the damaging conse-quences of the nuclear waste that is generated in the nuclear production chain. Neither will massive amounts of low-level waste be dumped in the country in consequence of uranium mining. Nor will the country’s landscape or subsoil be disfigured due to the presence of storage tanks containing long-lasting, high-level fluid waste from nuclear reprocessing. These consequences will be borne by people elsewhere (!). Yet will these facts suffice to allay the public’s fears? Under the agreement signed between Russia and Bangladesh, Bangladesh will not itself enrich uranium. Russia will both supply the fuel elements for the reactors, and will take back the highly radio-active rods once they have completed their ‘life-cycle’. However, this does not mean that the people of Ishwardi and Pabna can rest re-assured. Central issues to be looked into here are the temporary storage of the radioactive fuel rods after the end of their usage and the transportation of the fuel rods to and from the Rooppur nuclear complex. In Europe the transportation by road of used fuel elements has for many years aroused fierce resistance by anti-nuclear activists.

Thirdly, there is the question of reactor safety from a nuclear catastrophe. Russian officials will surely argue that the VVER-1000 design has proven to be more secure than the design of the granite-moderated reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, where the world’s most catastrophic nuclear accident ever took place in 1986. Surely, it is the last-mentioned RBMK-design which has burdened the Russian state and people with nightmarish problems, - of hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths, of a vast contaminated region where agricultural production had to be suspended, and of a huge financial burden for the construction and re-building of a reactor-sarcophage. Yet the so-called ‘stress tests’ undertaken in Russia in 2011, subsequent to the Fukushima disaster in Japan, have laid bare numerous basic defects that Russian reactors share with those in Japan. A joint report brought out by Rosatom and other Russian state institutions in the middle of 2011, for instance, questioned the capability of the country’s reactors to remain safe if cooling systems collapse, and there reportedly is no guarantee that power backup systems will be effective in case of a cooling system failure. The official report also described how spent fuel is simply allowed to accrue in onsite storage sites because of lack of space. One wonders whether scientists belonging to Bangladesh’s nuclear establishment have reviewed this report by Russia’s state agencies. And whether their own worries have been dispelled.

What then is the best way forward? How can the risks deriving from Rooppur for Bangladesh’s population best be assessed? Scientists and economists who are concerned about solving Bangladesh’s energy needs will undoubtedly argue that we need a dispassionate debate on the issue, and that it would be wrong to oppose Rooppur merely on the basis of fear. Being no natural scientist myself and aware of the risks of over-simplification, I would nevertheless argue that the country would do well to take notice of the huge international controversy surrounding nuclear energy today. In neighboring India, for instance, there has emerged an informed debate, which is of immediate relevance for Bangladesh. Coincidentally the strongest opposition against nuclear construction has been built in the area surrounding Koodankulam, in Tamil Nadu, precisely in opposition against a VVER-reactor supplied by the Russian Federation. Being densely populated and subject to annual river flooding, Bangladesh can ill afford to take risks. Hence, whatever construction works in Rooppur, if any, should be preceded by an informed public debate, - a debate in which both the country’s progressive intellectuals, the new generation of urban activists, and Pabna’s peasants and fisher folk take part.

First published in, 22 January, 2013

Dr. Peter Custers, a theoretician on nuclear production, lives in Leiden, the Netherlands, author of Questioning Globalized Militarism (Tulika, New Delhi/Merlin Press, London, 2007),