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.
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Jamaat-e-Islami denies charges
Jamaat-e-Islami vehemently denies the charges. But many believe the government has a solid case, as well as wide sweeping public support. That is why the government’s approach has been so disappointing, observers say.Skip to next paragraph
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Hasina’s government has not simply arrested Jamaat’s leaders for war crimes. Instead, it has implicated Nizami and others in dubious cases, observers here say, including for religious blasphemy, the murder of a rickshaw puller during a street protest, a sedition case, and for attacking the police. War crimes charges were only later added to the list.
This approach threatens to undermine the integrity of the proceedings, observers say. And it could backfire. Nizami and others – who may actually be guilty of war crimes – will have to be let go if evidence for these others offenses is not sufficiently supplied.
“The arrest for such apparently trivial … charges, as opposed to crimes against humanity, has created an opportunity for … the opposition to come up with a statement demanding their release and terming the detention as politically motivated,” Mozammel H. Khan, of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh, wrote in a recent editorial in The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper.
Jamaat vehemently protests the government’s actions. “This issue has no legal basis, no moral basis. It has been overplayed,” Jamaat’s assistant secretary, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, told the Monitor in a recent interview.
Hasina’s government seems determined to proceed. Mr. Kamaruzzaman was one of the two arrested on Wednesday. He is being charged for his alleged role in killing more than 300 people in 1971. During an interview before his arrest, he insisted on his innocence.
“The media has made me so important – one of the top 10 war criminals, according to the press. It is because I am actively involved in politics. If I was not in politics, nobody would have remembered me,” he said.
An opportunity to start fresh? or incite violence?
Analysts here worry that the arrests, by focusing narrowly on Jamaat, will distract from the larger significance of the trial: because Muslims killed other Muslims in the name of Islam, and were never punished, a culture of extremism has taken root with impunity in Bangladesh. The tribunal is a chance to address that larger injustice, not just skewer one party, observers say.
“This trial can be a new moment. It will be a great moral defeat for the forces of extremism,” says M.A. Hasan of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, a private organization that has been collecting evidence on behalf of the tribunal.
Before his arrest, Kamaruzzaman insisted to the Monitor that his party would follow legal procedures to prove its innocence.
But he added that militancy might be the last resort for his party’s younger followers if the government continues harassing his party.
“It is very difficult to control the younger people at such an emotional issue. We are afraid some of them can go for underground militancy, for retaliation,” he said.
It may be an empty claim. But many here are now bracing for what could be more violence. Still, they say, the price would be worth it.
“This trial is very needed. We should have tried them much, much earlier,” says first year college student Jahir Ruslam Joy. Standing next to him, his friend, Dipak Detisha, interjected, “We are ready to face the violence for the greater sake of the country.”
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