The Revenge Question
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