The Re­venge Ques­tion

Southasia - - COMMENT -

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port of a Dhaka-based hu­man rights group, 503 peo­ple were killed in po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence in Bangladesh dur­ing 2013. More than 30 na­tion­wide strikes and nu­mer­ous re­gional shut­downs brought the econ­omy of this im­pov­er­ished coun­try to a grind­ing halt. While the vi­o­lence was mostly elec­tion-re­lated, its in­ten­sity in­creased af­ter the ex­e­cu­tion of Ab­dul Quader Molla, a se­nior Ja­maat-e-Is­lami leader, on De­cem­ber 12, 2013, for his al­leged war crimes in the 1971 lib­er­a­tion war with Pak­istan. Clashes be­tween JI sup­port­ers, pro-gov­ern­ment ac­tivists and the po­lice force claimed many lives and pri­vate prop­erty worth mil­lions was de­stroyed.

When the Awami League gov­ern­ment of Sheikh Haseena formed the In­ter­na­tional Crimes Tri­bunal in 2009 to in­ves­ti­gate the 1971 war crimes, the move was hailed both na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. The need to in­ves­ti­gate the heinous atroc­i­ties and to pun­ish the cul­prits was wel­comed by the Bangladesh Ja­maate-Is­lami it­self. But sup­port for the Crimes Tri­bunal de­creased grad­u­ally as tri­als be­gan and ques­tions started to emerge about their fair­ness. The Ja­maat-e-Is­lami ac­cused the tri­als to be po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and the charge seemed to stick when tele­phonic con­ver­sa­tions and emails ex­changed be­tween the for­mer chair­man of the Tri­bunal and a Brus­sels-based lawyer of Bangladeshi ori­gin were leaked. It sug­gested that the tri­bunal chair­man was under gov­ern­ment pres­sure to de­cide the cases in a cer­tain way. When the scan­dal broke out in 2012, the Bangladesh gov­ern­ment did not dis­band the court and nei­ther did it think of es­tab­lish­ing a new court com­pris­ing in­ter­na­tional ob­servers in or­der to put to rest the ob­jec­tions to its im­par­tial­ity.

When Quader Molla was sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment in Fe­bru­ary 2013, he filed a re­view pe­ti­tion be­fore the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. In an un­prece­dented de­ci­sion, the SC re­viewed the ap­peal and en­hanced the sen­tence, chang­ing it from life im­pris­on­ment to a death sen­tence. That a court changed the orig­i­nal sen­tence in a re­view pe­ti­tion is un­heard of in South Asia. Sub­se­quently, in a show of un­wise haste, Quader Molla was ex­e­cuted on De­cem­ber 12, 2013, ig­nor­ing pleas for cle­mency by many world lead­ers. This gave fur­ther cre­dence to the ac­cu­sa­tion that the gov­ern­ment wanted to de­rive po­lit­i­cal mileage out of the tri­als ahead of the 2014 elec­tions. It may be some time be­fore the Awami League re­al­izes that it has ac­tu­ally handed over a po­lit­i­cal mar­tyr to the Ja­maat-e-Is­lami which can now in­voke the ex­e­cu­tion of Quader Molla for po­lit­i­cal gains.

The un­rest that un­folded in the wake of Molla’s ex­e­cu­tion claimed more than 30 lives in less than a month. Peo­ple were killed in the most bru­tal man­ner. At least two were hacked to death. Among those who died was an 11-year old who was fa­tally burned as he sat in­side his fa­ther’s rick­shaw that was set ablaze by an an­gry mob. The in­ci­dents were a fright­en­ingly gory re­minder of sim­i­lar acts com­mit­ted in the 1971 war. In­stead of giv­ing a sense of clo­sure to the whole war crimes is­sue, the trial, sen­tence and ex­e­cu­tion of Quader Molla opened a new chap­ter of atroc­i­ties. In this back­drop, it was ob­vi­ous that vi­o­lence only begets vi­o­lence. Per­haps a Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, along the lines of the one set up in South Africa af­ter the long fight against apartheid, would have seemed to be a saner op­tion and would have served to en­hance the im­age of Sheikh Haseena as some­one who was com­mit­ted to con­tain­ing the vi­o­lence rather than in­sti­gat­ing it. Bangladesh would do bet­ter to for­give and move on rather than res­ur­rect­ing its bloody past.

Syed Jawaid Iqbal

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