Monday, August 18, 2008

The Original Sin


The government must form a commission to probe into the war crimes of 1971

During Bangladesh's liberation war three million people died, one-third of the country's population was displaced, 200,000 women were raped and hundreds and thousands were maimed. The occupying Pakistani army, which started the butchering in the name of Operation Searchlight on the gory night of March 25, 1971, took help from its local collaborators by forming several paramilitary groups such as the Peace Committee, Razakar, Al Badr and Al Shams. Formed by members of Jamaat-e-Islam, Nezam-e-Islam Party and the Muslim League, these groups unleashed a reign of terror during the Muktijudho by picking up innocent Bangladeshis and handing them over to the Pakistani army or forcing women into sexual slavery in the camps of the Pakistanis. Memories are still fresh and the copies of newspapers printed during that time are littered with evidence of war crimes. Hundreds of mass graves have been discovered in which the bodies of innocent civilians were dumped by the collaborators of the Pakistani army.

The trial of these killers and rapists started soon after independence, some of these vile people were arrested, most of the leaders of Jamaat, Nezam-e-Islam and Muslim League, which were banned, were either on the run or had fled the country. A Razakar (collaborator) was executed for killing.

The process was stopped in 1975 when a string of bloody coups witnessed the murder of the country's founding fathers. A known supporter of the Pakistani army was made the Prime Minister, the killers and rapists were set free, and infamous Razakars, Al Badrs and Al Shams members like Khan A Sabur, Golam Azam, Matiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Mojahed, were allowed to form political parties again in 1978. These notorious criminals have been allowed to spread their tentacles by the subsequent governments, the most shameless example has been in 2001 when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded by a valiant freedom fighter Major General Ziaur Rahman, formed an electoral alliance with the Jamaat, a party that actively opposed Bangladesh's independence. The alliance, after it won the elections, has made two known collaborators of the Pakistani army, ministers. Nizami, who headed the Al Badr paramilitary in 1971, which killed teachers, writers, doctors and journalists on December 14, 1971, has become a minister of Bangladesh, the birth of which he was opposed to less than four decades ago.

Jamaat or the Razakars-Al Badr-Al Shams have never apologised for the war crimes its members have commited or the criminal activities it has been involved in as a political entity in 1971. On the contrary, the party and its leaders have always held the view that no war crime has ever taken place in 1971. A few months ago the Acting Secretary General of the party has told journalists that there were no war criminals in the country and another stooge of the party Shah Hannan has called Bangladesh's war of independence a mere civil war. A freedom fighter has been assaulted this month at a programme organised by the Jamaat supporters. These people had the audacity to set up a fake 'Muktijudho Parishad' that claims to be for the welfare of the Muktijudhos which did not stop the organisers from humiliating a freedom fighter who had demanded that war criminals be punished.

The necessity for the trial of the killers and rapists of 1971 has always been the demand of the people of this country. It has especially gained momentum since the current caretaker government assumed power on January 11 last year and has declared to reform the country's politics. Hordes of suspected corrupt people have been arrested, most of whom have thought themselves beyond the reach of law. Crimes committed years ago have been unearthed and have had light shed upon them. The Chief Adviser, the Chief of the Army and the Chief Election Commissioner have voiced their opposition to the war crimes, calling the participation of the war criminals uncalled for. In the electoral laws that the current government has proposed it is stipulated that no war criminal will be able to run for the office. Yet the government has so far shied away from forming a tribunal or fact-finding committee to probe into the war crimes. In fact, the outcome of the next general election will be flawed if the killers and rapists of 1971 are allowed to participate in it, and if, like the previous general elections, some of them make it to the parliament.

It is indeed a shame on our conscience as a nation that the deaths of so many martyrs who have laid down their lives for the liberation of our country have not been avenged, and that we, as a nation, have collectively failed to enforce justice on the rapists who have perpetrated one of the worst war crimes in human history. This government, as it has taken so many steps to clean our politics of unscrupulous elements, must also start the process of trying the war criminals by forming a commission to probe into the war crimes. The government has sought the help of the UN in this regard, we know, but it has so far taken very few measures to find out the criminals and bring them to justice so that in the next election they will not be able to take part. Every contestant who wants to run for government office must disclose details like what he or she did or where he or she lived in 1971.

It is understandable that the goal of the caretaker government is to hold a free and fair election and hand over power to the elected representatives of the people. We know that the government is only a few months away from holding the elections, but it is also true that the government cannot deny its responsibility of trying a war crime tribunal as it is long overdue and there is a growing demand for it. This government has done many things that its predecessors could not; trying the war criminals is the only issue in which it is following the footsteps of the previous regimes. It is the expectation of the people that before it leaves, the government will form a war crime commission with a sitting high court judge at its helm to glean into the war crimes committed in 1971. This commission will refer the cases to the war crime tribunal that will be formed later on.

One reason why we have not been able to establish the rule of law is because we have not been able to punish those who have committed acts of murder, rape and arson during the very birth of our nation. This is our original sin, the sin that is still stalking us. It is the responsibility of this government to help us atone for that sin.