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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

War crimes trials are a defining moment for Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, a moderate Muslim nation of 160 million people, a revolution is unfolding to keep the country’s secular character alive.


In Bangladesh, a moderate Muslim nation of 160 million people, a revolution is unfolding to keep the country’s secular character alive. For two months now, hundreds of thousands of people from young men and women, aging former guerrilla fighters and grandmothers who still carry the scars of genocide, have occupied Shahbag Square in the capital, Dhaka. The collective anger of a nation, simmering below the surface for more than 40 years, has been called the country’s second war of liberation.

The roots of this resentment lie in the genocide of the Bengali people (of the then-East Pakistan, separated from West Pakistan by 1,600 km) that started in March 1971. The Pakistan Army wanted to overturn the verdict of the only general election in Pakistan, won by the East Pakistani party led by the charismatic leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The Pakistani occupation army and its accused Bengali collaborators, the mullahs of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, imposed a nine-month war of horrors on the Bengalis. The Bengalis fought back in what they saw as a war of liberation. The genocide resulted in an estimated 3 million killed and 200,000 women raped by the occupation forces and their Bengali accomplices, before the Pakistani Army’s humiliating surrender to combined Indian and Bangladeshi guerrilla forces in December 1971.

The government of the newly created state, Bangladesh, started trials of the Bengali collaborators, mostly members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, under a newly enacted law, the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act of 1973. However, the trials were stopped following the tragic assassination of the president and founding father in 1975.

It was not until 2008 when the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Rahman’s daughter, campaigned on a promise to set up tribunals to try the 1971 collaborators for war crimes. She was swept into power in the fairest election in the country’s history, winning all but 30 seats in a 300-member parliament. In 2010 the war crimes trials finally began.

Among the first to be convicted was a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Abdul Quader Mollah (incidentally my own roommate in college days). But instead of the death sentence, Mollah was given life imprisonment with the possibility of a future pardon, if a change of guard takes place at the helm of the state. Hearing that his life had been saved, Mollah turned to the news cameras and, with a huge grin on his face, waved a victory sign to the crowd.

While Mollah was euphoric, liberal and secular Bangladeshis were infuriated. How could a man pronounced guilty of war crimes, accused of raping and shooting 344 civilians to death during the 1971 war, not receive the maximum punishment, the death sentence?

Within hours of the judgment, which was handed down on Feb. 5, ordinary students and bloggers used Facebook and Twitter to rally their contacts. Soon an impromptu gathering of hundreds, then thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands collected at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square.

For weeks, they have been there and despite the gruesome murder of one of the leaders, have kept their movement peaceful. The protesters wanted the government to amend the law to make it possible for the prosecution to appeal the decision of the tribunal, which the parliament did, to bring equity to the law, since only the defendants were able to appeal. In addition, they want a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami as a collaborator that took active part of the genocide.

The mullahs of the Jamaat-e-Islami, on the other hand, label the leaders of the uprising as atheist and anti-Islamic, even though religion and personal faith have no part in the current resurrection of patriotism.

For the first time ever in the Muslim world, there has been a popular uprising against the fascism of an Islamist party that garnered only 3 per cent of votes in the last general election. One would have expected the western intelligentsia to be thrilled at this development and for the media to report from the square. Instead, there have been many distorted reports criticizing the war crimes trials in such major publications as The Economist of London.

The uprising back home has touched the hearts and souls of Bangladeshis around the world, including the estimated 50,000 people of Bangladeshi origin who live in the Greater Toronto Area. Over the past few weeks, rallies organized by Bangladeshi students and attended by hundreds have been taking place in Toronto every weekend to support the historic demonstrations in Shahbag Square, where the spirit of the liberation war is being rekindled.

First published in TheToronto Star, April 16 2013

Mozammel H. Khan teaches engineering at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning and is the Convener of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh

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