The Politics of Revenge
Bangladesh needs to come to terms with its past but not by embarking on the path of political vendetta.
It is time Bangladesh came to terms with its past.
The move to outlaw the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest religious party in Bangladesh, by the government of the Awami League in the wake of a report of the International Crimes Tribunals has caused a furor inside and outside Bangladesh. Having a significant presence in a number of Muslim countries, the supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami are protesting against this intended action. Many human rights agencies have also expressed their concerns over the lack of transparency in punishing political opponents, by using ‘war crimes’ as a tool. The government, however, claims that it has been working within constitutional and legal frameworks and following the orders of the courts.
The ICT, constituted in 2009 to investigate and prosecute suspects for the genocide committed in 1971 by the Pakistan Army and its local collaborators, the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams during the Bangladesh Liberation War, has found seven counts of crimes committed by the Jamaat-e-Islami, its associate bodies and mouthpiece, daily Sangram. During the 2008 general elections, the Awami League pledged that it would establish the war crime tribunal after coming to power, claiming that “there was a long-demanded popular call for trying war criminals”.
After winning elections in 2009, Shafique Ahmed, the Minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, announced that the trials would be held under the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973. The Act was later amended to incorporate the International Crimes Tribunal Rules of procedure and evidence.
On January 3, 2010, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh restored Article 38 of the Constitution, banning the use of religion or communal connotations in politics. Soon after this verdict, the Election Commission of Bangladesh asked the three Islamic parties – the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Bangladesh Khelafat Andolan and the Tarikat Federation – to amend their charters that were in conflict with the supreme law of the country.
Giving reasons for banning the Jamaat, Abdul Hannan Khan, the Chief Coordinator of the ICT’s investigation agency, revealed that the probe against the party and its associate bodies had been completed and confirmed their ‘crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes’. The decision was intentionally announced on the day when Bangladesh was observing ‘Black Night’ to commemorate what it calls ‘the Pakistan Army’s Operation Search Light - the beginning of the genocide on unarmed civilians in Dhaka on March 25, 1971’. According to Hannan Khan, substantial evidence is now available against the Jamaat and its associate bodies that proves their war crimes and violation of humanitarian rules of the Geneva Convention of 1950 that apply in any armed conflict.
Hannan Khan claimed that the probe report would be submitted to the chief prosecutor of the ICT to seek a ban on the Jamaat and its affiliates. He also claimed that although the government could ban the Jamaat-e-Islami through an executive order, it preferred to follow the legal process. The government, he said, wanted the total dissolution of the Jamaat and its affiliates. Comparing the Jamaat to the Nazi party, Hannan said that being a secular party, the Awami League was committed to punish war criminals and the ICT has convicted more than a dozen Jamaat leaders.
In the wake of the execution of a senior Jamaat leader in December 2013, a wave of deadly protests by Islamist supporters erupted in the country. Many people have died since January last year when the verdicts were first handed down. The Jamaat was banned from contesting the general elections held in January which were boycotted by other opposition parties and marred by bloodshed. Even, the apex court of Bangladesh ruled last August that the Jamaat be banned because its charter followed Islamic laws that conflicted with the nation’s official secular constitution, although the party was allowed to hold rallies.
The opposition alleged that the judiciary was influenced by the government to hand down political decisions. The Economist, in its December 2010 edition, published the contents of leaked communications between the Chief Justice of the ICT, Mohammed Nizamul Huq, and Ahmed Ziauddin, a Bangladeshi attorney in Brussels who specializes in international law and is director of the Bangladesh Centre for Genocide Studies. After the leaked communication was published in a local daily, Huq resigned from the tribunal. He was revealed to have "prohibited contacts" with the "prosecution, government officials, and an external advisor". After the exit of Huq, Fazle Kabir was appointed as the chairman of the ICT.
The Human Rights Watch has expressed concerns over the maneuverings in the ICT. By 2012, nine leaders of the Jamaat and two of the Bangladesh National Party were indicted. The first person to be convicted was Abul Kalam Azad (Bachchu), who was tried in absentia as he had left the country. He was awarded the death punishment. The supporters of the Jamaat and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, called for a general strike nationwide on December 4, 2012, which triggered violence across the country. They demanded disbanding of the ICT and release of their leaders.
After Abdul Quader Molla, Assistant Secretary General of the Jamaat, was convicted in February 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment rather than capital punishment, a peaceful demonstration started at the Shahbag intersection in Dhaka. Tens of thousands of mostly young demonstrators, including women, demanded that those convicted of war crimes should be given the death penalty. Non-violent protests supporting this position took place in other cities as the country went ahead with the trials. This showed a clear polarization in society.
The student wing of the Jamaat attacked police officers throughout the country. Numerous vehicles, including one of the U.S. Embassy, were torched and vandalized. On February 2, 2014, Jamaat-e-Islami leader AKM Yusuf, who was facing trial before the ICT, died in prison. He was indicted on 13 charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
On January 5, the AL, that has been ruling Bangladesh since early 2009, won a three-quarters majority in the parliamentary election that was condemned, both at home and abroad. The main opposition party, the BNP boycotted the polls and the U.S. and the EU refused to send election observers. According to the Bangladesh Election Commission, the turnout was a mere 40 percent compared to well over 80 percent in the previous elections held in December 2008. Diplomatic sources in Dhaka estimated the turnout to have been much lower, amounting to only around 20 percent. It showed the voters’ lack of trust in the AL.
The questionable conduct of the polls, the persecution of the Jamaat and its affiliates and lack of democratic credibility of Sheikh Hasina’s regime is weakening the state of Bangladesh. The conflict over the trials of political opponents and the tussle over the question of whether political Islam should be granted a legal space in the country’s democratic system shows that Bangladesh severely lacks a culture of tolerance. Also, the hysteria of the ‘War of Independence’ does not seem to be receding any time soon. The country needs to come out of the past and follow the example of South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. The policy of revenge and political vendetta will lead it to further chaos and conflicts.