Bangladesh’s Divisive Politics

Posted on 12/17/13
By K. Iqbal | Via The Nation
Uprising of people at Shahbag, Dhaka, Bangladesh demanding death penalty of Kader Molla and all other war criminals who are now being tried before the International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh for the serious crimes they have committed during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. (Photo by M. Hasan, Creative Commons License)
Uprising of people at Shahbag, Dhaka, Bangladesh demanding death penalty of Kader Molla and all other war criminals who are now being tried before the International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh for the serious crimes they have committed during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. (Photo by M. Hasan, Creative Commons License)

Given the fractured and vindictive political climate in Bangladesh, the risks of new injustices occurring are very real. Dramatic hanging of Abdul Quader Molla symbolizes two axioms about gross miscarriage of justice: ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ and justice hurried is justice buried’; both were operative in this case. Opening of cases after over forty years of the alleged crime, enactment of law by the parliament empowering government to appeal for enhancement of punishment and its retrospect application to Molla’s case, followed by his hanging of Molla within hours of rejection of appeal speak volumes about the way in which political expediency has overtaken the incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
Appellate Court carried an upward review of the sentence and life imprisonment was upped to death sentence. Later during review proceedings, the Attorney General Alam told the court that there was “no scope for a review in war crimes cases”. Chief Justice Muzammel Hossain promptly obliged and “dismissed” Molla’s appeal for a final review of his death sentence. Only three defense witnesses were allowed to depose against thirty three prosecution witnesses. Moreover, international observers were not allowed to witness the trials. Appellate procedure was mysteriously short and Molla was executed in an indecent haste.


After the creation of Bangladesh, Sheik Mujibur Rahman (the country’s founder) set up special tribunals to try the ‘collaborators’. Several thousand cases were filed, but good sense prevailed and Sheik Mujibur declared a general amnesty.


Hasina Sheikh’s current tenure as Prime Minister has witnessed recurring demonstrations calling for war criminals to be brought to justice. Earlier after 34 years of assassination of Sheikh Mujib, his assassins hanged. Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmed, who took over as Bangladesh’s president after Mujib’s assassination, had granted them immunity. General Ziaur Rehman, who later became president, also confirmed the immunity.


In reality, all sides in a conflict resort to violence whenever a country slips into the jaws of a civil war. It is a fact that Bengali militants resorted to whole range of heinous crimes against non-Bengali ethnic groups, especially Biharis, between December 1970 and March 26, 1971; and again after the fall of Dhaka on December 16, 1971. Numerous analysts have challenged the veracity of narratives propped up through official versions of history. One such challenger is a renowned Bengali scholar from India, Dr Sarmila Bose. In her highly respected work “Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh war” (banned in Bangladesh), Dr Sarmila gives a detailed account of horrific atrocities committed by Bengalis against no-Bengalis.


Indeed soon after creation of the tribunal, Hasina lost control over its dynamics. The civil society of Bangladesh hijacked ‘the cause’ with fierce staging of pickets in the name of “Shahbagh movement.” Hasina finally fell victim to mob mentality, and got consumed by the Genie she had created. While fermenting and sustaining a politicized hype in favor of trials, she ignored that equally powerful counter narrative to Shahbagh movement. If any proof of this clash of values were needed, it came in the form of a hugely impressive counter-demonstration against the Shahbag movement led by activists of Islamic movement Hifazat-e-Islam, which occupied the capital’s Motijheel area. Unlike the Shahbag events, the counter-demonstration was well-planned and organized, and conveyed the stark message that there was an alternative point of view in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.


Molla’s execution was carried out in a run-up to December 16 ‘Victory Day’, to serve as a diversionary tool to shift the public focus from deep political crisis through which this unfortunate country is passing. Opposition parties have refused to take part in the forthcoming elections unless an independent interim government is put in place for conducting free, fair and credible elections. The sole objective of Hasina’s populist ploy was to preempt the building of a grand alliance of multiple political parties against the Awami League with active participation of the JI cadres. All six convicts sentenced for alleged war crimes belong to the Bangladesh Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and other parties currently aligned with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BN).


The people are out on the streets and there are reports of violent demonstrations in all districts. The mood is ugly; the Victory Day could turn into a death dance. The matters could eventually end up in into something that might not be easy to control.


From Pakistan three streams of reaction have emerged. JI Pakistan has owned its leader, and has resorted to peaceful demonstration. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has expressed deep grief and concern over the hanging of Mullah. He said there was no doubt the JI leader was punished for his loyalty to Pakistan in 1971. “The execution of Abdul Quader Molla is a very unfortunate and tragic step… [Molla] remained a supporter of a united Pakistan till the very end…today every Pakistani is saddened and grieved over his death.”


Foreign office’s response was overly timid: “While it is not Pakistan’s policy to interfere in the affairs of any country, we have noted the concerns raised by the international community and human rights organizations on the way the recent trials have been conducted which have added to the current instability in Bangladesh, we wish the brotherly people of Bangladesh well and hope that spirit of reconciliation and an atmosphere, free of violence, will prevail.” It is a point to ponder for our Foreign office that Pakistan had to abandon the practice of hanging even the hardened terrorists to extract nominal concessions for textile exports to European Union countries whereas Bangladesh has been enjoying far better facilities for the same kind of exports since decades, and yet was able to hang Molla with impunity.


The trials have been unanimously criticized by the international community for failing well short of acceptable standards of justice. Since its institution in 2010, the International Tribunal Court (ICT) has attracted world-wide condemnation. The court’s standing received a severe blow 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 integrity of the tribunal.


Bangladesh is indeed following a dangerous trajectory of re-invoking historical events to settle current scores. Norms of international relations, solidarity of Islamic Ummah and wisdom demanded that such events of the past should have been put behind for the beginning of a new era. If Awami League’s sole interest was accounting for the actions of everyone in 1971 it would have been better served by granting an amnesty to anyone who was convicted while seeking only to establish the truth.

 The writer is aPakistan-based freelance columnist. This article first appeared in The Nation, a leading newspaper of Pakistan.


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