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.

Lutfor Rahman/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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