The Pol­i­tics of Re­venge

Bangladesh needs to come to terms with its past but not by em­bark­ing on the path of po­lit­i­cal vendetta.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Huza­ima Bukhari and Dr. Ikra­mul Haq The writ­ers, part­ners in law firm Huza­ima & Ikram (Taxand Pak­istan), are ad­junct fac­ulty mem­bers at the La­hore Univer­sity of Man­age­ment Sci­ences.

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.

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