Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It is Time

The parliament has passed a bill to try the war criminals, now is the time the government takes concrete steps to start the trial

During our nation's Liberation War when the whole nation was fighting the occupying Pakistan army, a bunch of thugs and killers mostly belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Muslim League (ML) and Nizam-e-Islam (NI) formed three different groups of killers and rapists. These killing squads-- Razakar, Al Badr and Al Shams--in the nine bleak months of 1971 carried out atrocities on the innocent Bangali population of the country.

Members of the Razakar, Al Badr and Al Shams spread their tentacles all over the country to provide the information of movements of the freedom fighters to the Pakistan army and worst still they committed one of the most gruesome human rights abuses in recent human history by abducting Bangali women, some even in their early teens, to be sent to the concentration camps of the Pakistan army. In the last few days of the war, when these vile forces saw their orgy of killing and rape drawing to a brutal end, they formed killing squads, which led the abduction and killing of Bangali intellectuals. The discovery of mass graves and newspaper reports of those days prove that some leaders of the JI, NI and MIL and their student and youth wings were involved in acts of mass murder. Siddik Salik, who served as a Major in the marauding Pakistan army in 1971, in his book 'Witness to Surrender' says, "The only people who came forward (to help the Pakistani army butcher and rape innocent people) were 'the rightists like Khwaza Khairuddin of the Council Muslim League, Fazlul Qader Chaudhry of the Convention Muslim League, Khan Sobur A Khan of the Qayyum Muslim League, Professor Ghulam Azam of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Maulvi Farid Ahmed of the Nizam-e-Islam Party."

The crimes that these butchers have committed are no less gruesome than those perpetrated by Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. The trial of these bunch of mass murderers started no sooner than the country's independence in 1971. On January 24, 1972, the Collaborator's Act was promulgated; by October 1973, over 37,000 suspected war criminals were arrested of whom 26,000, against whom there was no clear evidence of killing, rape and arson, were pardoned under a general amnesty. When Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered on the dark night of August 15, 1975, 11,000 killers and rapists were in jail, facing trial. The JI, NI and ML were banned for their role in war crime. After the death of Bangabandhu, the ban was lifted and the government of Ziaur Rahman, which usurped power in a bloody coup d'├ętat in 1975, made a known collaborator of the Pakistani regime the country's Prime Minister.

The rehabilitation of the killers continued throughout the eighties and nineties of the last century. In the last government led by Zia's widow Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Khaleda Zia, two known war criminals were given important portfolios; of them includes, Ali Ahsan Mojahed, who was quoted to have said by “Daily Sangram” on October 15,1971: "The youths of the Razakars and al-Badar forces and all other voluntary organisations have been working for the nation to protect it from the collaborators and agents of India." In the last caretaker government's regime, he, also secretary general of JI and head of the Al Badr paramilitia, said no war crime had been committed in 1971. His comment and the subsequent diatribes of some war criminals and their sympathisers have proven that members of the JI does not hold an iota of remorse for actively participating in the genocides of 1971.

In fact, as an issue, the trial of the war criminals has been one of the deciding factors of last year's general elections. The BNP, which went to the elections keeping its electoral alliance with the JI intact, was routed in the polls as the party was seen by voters, especially the younger ones, as war crime sympathisers. In its electoral manifesto, the Awami League has promised that it will bring the killers of 1971 to the book. Now that the party holds an absolute majority in the parliament, it is time to take the nation forward to that direction.

The AL-led Grand Alliance government will significantly lose its popularity if at the end of its term the party fails to try at least most of the known war criminals. During the Liberation War, because the Communist Soviet Union supported our liberation struggle, the US and its allies sided with the Pakistani junta by providing it with military logistic and diplomatic support. The second week of December 1971, witnessed the arrival of the United States Seventh Fleet's carrier taskforce 74 in the Bay of Bengal to help the losing Pakistani junta. Time, however, has changed: Now the US is a good friend of our country and an important strategic ally. One hopes that, as a time-tested friend of the people of Bangladesh and a friend that wants to see democracy and rule of law flourish in Bangladesh, the US will support the efforts of the people of Bangladesh to bring the war criminals of 1971 before justice.

The government should immediately form a tribunal with a High Court judge as the head under the International (Crimes) Tribunal Act 1973. It should also pass a law in the parliament making war crime denial a crime-- Germany has already outlawed holocaust denial, many European countries also have such laws.

The matter of the JI, NI, ML and other such organisation's participation in the war crimes as a political entity has to be probed. Democracy allows freedom of speech and movement; having said that, a democratic society needs to build its own mechanism to safeguard itself from those who want to destroy the very foundation on which it stands. Democracy will not take a firm footing in our country if the criminals who committed the worst crimes against humanity against the people of our country remain free.

It is heartening to see the government has barred the suspected war criminals from travelling abroad. Transparency, respect for human rights and rule of law should be our guiding principles in dealing with the war criminals.

There are some, small in number though, who believe that the trial of war criminals will breed extremism in the country, as the JI is the 'biggest moderate Islamic party' in the country. This analysis runs the risk of equating Bangladesh's socio-political condition with that of Pakistan's. Unlike Pakistan, the JI in Bangladesh, as the last elections have proven, does not wield a mass support base, and the party does not work as a buffer between extremism and democracy. Bangladesh has an unofficial two-party system, when it comes to the elections or lending their political support, Bangladeshis have voted for two major political parties: in the general elections, the JI has never bagged more than 8 percent of total votes cast. The party has always become a distant fourth after Gen HM Ershad's Jatya Party. In fact, the trial of the war criminals will be a chance for the JI to clean its rank of its tainted past. As a new beginning, the JI should drop war criminals from its leadership and swear allegiance to Bangladesh and everything the country stands for.

The government should start the trial as soon as it can. The crime that has been committed against this nation and its people in 1971 must not go unpunished. The blood of the martyrs is crying out for justice, we have ignored it for 37 long years; history will not forgive us if we fail this time.

The International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973, says: "…A Tribunal shall have power to try and punish any person irrespective of his nationality who, being a member of any armed, defence or auxiliary forces commits or has committed in the territory of Bangladesh, whether before or after the commencement of this act, any of the following crimes.
(2) The following acts or any of them are crimes within the jurisdiction of a Tribunal for which there shall
be individual responsibility, namely:-
(a) Crimes against Humanity: namely, murder, extermination enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, abduction, confinement, torture, rape or other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population or prosecutions on political, racial, ethnic or religious grounds whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated;
(b) Crimes against Peace: namely planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
(c) Genocide: meaning and including any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial, religious or political group, as such:
(i) killing members of the group;
(ii) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(iii) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(iv) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(v) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group;
(d) War Crimes: namely, violation of laws or customs of war which include but are not limited to murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of civilian population in the territory of Bangladesh; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages and
detenues, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages or devastation not justified by military necessity;
(e) Violation of any humanitarian rules applicable in armed conflicts laid down in the Geneva Convention of 1949;
(f) Any other crimes under international law;
(g) Attempt abatement or conspiracy to commit any such crimes;
(h) Complicity in or failure to prevent commission of any such crimes.

About the formation of the trial the Act says: (1) For the purpose of section 3, the Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, set up one or more Tribunals, each consisting of a Chairman and not less that two and not more that four other members.
(2) Any person who is or is qualified to be a Judge of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh or has been a
Judge of any High Court or Supreme court which at any time was in existence in the territory of
Bangladesh or who is qualified to be a member of General Court Martial under any service law of
Bangladesh may be appointed as a Chairman or member of a Tribunal.
(3) The permanent seat of a Tribunal shall be in Dacca.
Provided that a Tribunal may hold its sittings as such other place or places as it deems fit.
(4) If any member of a Tribunal dies or is, due to illness or any other reason, unable to continue to perform his functions, the Government may, by notification in the official Gazette, declare the office of such member to be vacant and appoint thereto another person qualified to hold the office.
(5) If, in the course of a trial, any one of the members of a Tribunal is, for any reason, unable to attend any sitting thereof, the trial may continue before the other members.
(6) A Tribunal shall not, merely by reason of any change in its membership or the absence of any member thereof from any sitting, be bound to recall and re-hear any witness who has already given any evidence and may act on the evidence already given of produced before it.
(7) If, upon any matter requiring the decision of a Tribunal, there is a difference of opinion among its members, the opinion of the majority shall prevail and the decision of the Tribunal shall be expressed in terms of the views of the majority.
(8) Neither the constitution of a Tribunal nor the appointment of its Chairman or members shall be challenged by the prosecution or by the accused persons of their counsel.