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Bangladesh arrests are opening act of war crimes tribunal

Two leading Islamist politicians were arrested as Bangladesh prepares to hold a war crimes tribunal for those charged with committing mass murder during the country's liberation war from Pakistan in 1971. Observers worry this might incite violence.

By David MonteroCorrespondent / July 14, 2010

Bangladesh police arrested three of Jamaat-e-Islami's top leaders, including the party’s head Motiur Rahman Nizami (c.), in Dhaka June 29, sparking street riots that wounded more than 80 people.

Lutfor Rahman/Reuters


DHAKA, Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s government on Wednesday arrested two of the country’s leading Islamist politicians, charging them with committing mass murder during Bangladesh’s liberation war from Pakistan in 1971.

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Both men are members of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the country’s largest fundamentalist party. Their detention comes after the government arrested three of Jamaat’s top leaders, including the party’s head, Motiur Rahman Nizami, in late June, sparking street riots that wounded more than 80 people.

The arrests, which have effectively neutralized Jamaat’s leadership, are the opening act in a tribunal that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed established in March to try war crimes committed during 1971.

1971 Bangladesh atrocities

The government claims it has evidence that Jamaat-e-Islami collaborated with the Pakistani Army, which killed, according to some figures, as many as 3 million Bangladeshis – most of them fellow Muslims - and raped more than 200,000 women.

On the one hand, analysts say the trial could be a model for the world: a Muslim-majority democracy trying one of the modern world’s worst acts of religious extremism.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Hasina has harassed Jamaat-e-Islami with strong-arm tactics that undermine the rule of law, according to critics, as a result of which Jamaat has vowed to retaliate, possibly with violence. Fears already abound that the tribunal could now ignite a social explosion.

Starting a war crimes tribunal isn't easy

“The Jamaat leaders will make every effort to stop this trial. Will it be a political resistance? Will it be a hidden, violent resistance through terrorism? All possibilities should be taken into account, and we should be prepared accordingly,” says retired Bangladeshi Maj. Gen. Muhammed Abdur Rashid, an independent political analyst in Dhaka.

Starting a war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh has not been easy. Past efforts have stalled or been swept aside for 40 years, given that a trial threatens to implicate many of those currently or recently in power. But Hasina won a landslide victory in 2009 on campaign promises that she would do just that. The stakes are personal for her Awami League party: the core of Bengali nationalists, they were one of the main targets of the brutality in 1971.

Many questions still hover over Hasina’s tribunal, including the extent of reliable evidence, the list of witnesses, and the number of accused. Last week, the government banned about 40 suspects from leaving the country, indicating that the proceedings would begin soon.

But one thing seems certain, observers agree: Jamaat-e-Islami’s leadership will come under scrutiny during the trial.

What does this mean for the political party?

It’s a troubling moment for the party. Jamaat has been able to build a solid base as a legal, respected party, with some 12 million supporters here.

It has managed to weather accusations – long held but never proven – that it secretly supports militancy. In 2001, the party even won 17 seats in Parliament, and took three ministerial posts.

Hasina’s tribunal threatens to dig up a past Jamaat would rather forget.

International scholars and living witnesses have all accused Nizami and other Jamaat leaders of directing militias - known as Razzakars - that killed Bengali Muslims and Hindus in 1971. The fighting began after Bengali nationalists, accusing Pakistan’s leadership of economic, cultural, and political exploitation, took up arms.

Scholars point out, however, that the vast majority of crimes committed during the 1971 war, were not committed by Jamaat-e-Islami, but by Bangladeshis who sided with Pakistan.