February 17, 2013

Bangladesh War Crime Trial: The Surprise Second Verdict

Smruti S. Pattanaik

February 12, 2013
The verdict against Abdul Quadir Molla by the War Crime Tribunal 2, which sentenced him to life, came as a surprise to many given the graveness of his crime. The tribunal found him guilty on five counts out of six criminal charges that were pressed. Some of the cases for which he was found guilty include the massacre of innocent unarmed civilians during Bangladesh’s liberation war. Quadir Molla, who was Assistant General Secretary of Jamaat Islami, was part of the al badr and al shams, the anti-liberation forces raised by the Pakistan Army to eliminate all those who were not only freedom fighters but also their sympathizers in a systematic manner. Given Mollah’s conviction in the war crimes, the verdict was distinctly inadequate and hence it was regarded by many as ‘justice denied’ to the families of victims who have been waiting for 40 long years must have found the life sentence awarded to him as too lenient. It is not surprising that rallies and protest marches are now being held throughout the country as a reaction to that verdict in which the youth are playing a lead role.

The long awaited war crime trial started after the Awami League assumed power in 2008. It was the civil society members led by the sector commanders’ forum – f¬ormed in 2007 by ex-Sector and sub-sector Commanders of the liberation war - who campaigned for the trial of war crimes committed during the 1971 liberation war. Awami League, which had led the liberation war, made this issue one of its agendas in the run up to the 2008 elections. Such a campaign for the trial of war criminals was the second since the restoration of democracy. Earlier, in 1992, an organization named Ekatturer Ghattak Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee to exterminate the Killers and Collaborators) had demanded the trial of war criminals; it even held a mock trial of people accused of war crimes in gonoadalat (people’s court) and passed verdict. The then BNP government had responded to this by bringing charges of sedition against people involved in this trial.

Both the major political parties – the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – had at that point in time provided only lip service to the cause of war crime trial since they both wanted to court the Jamaat for electoral alliance. But the situation in the country changed in 2007 with the demand from civil society for the trial of war crimes. The rising public concerns about radicalisation of Bangladesh society in the wake of the countrywide bomb blasts in 2005, which was followed by suicide terrorist attacks on the judiciary, played a role in galvanising popular opinion against right wing elements and led them to demand the long pending trial of war criminals to end the culture of impunity.

Since its constitution in 2010, the war crime tribunal has faced several controversies. The Chief Investigator of these trials, Abdul Matin, had to resign in 2010 soon after the constitution of the war crime tribunal because of his links with the Islami Chatra Sangha, the then student wing of the Jamaat Islami. There have been attempts by vested quarters to question the credibility of these trials, a notable example being the hacking of the Skype account of a judge of the tribunal and the disclosure of his controversial conversation with a Brussels-based Bangladeshi lawyer. This disclosure led to the judge’s resignation. For the past many months, Jamaat has attempted to delegitimise the trial process by terming it political and demanding the release of its leaders accused of war crimes. On this issue it has the support of the BNP, its alliance partner. However, given that the next election is round the corner and sending the popular mood, the BNP has distanced itself from the Jamaat’s demand to dismantle the war crime trial. There has also been international pressure by interested countries to pressure the Bangladesh government into abandoning the trial.

What is important and explains the widespread anger against the second verdict on Molla is this: it is difficult to meet a person in Bangladesh who has not lost a family member, a friend or an acquaintance in the liberation war. The demonstration against what is perceived as a lenient verdict was spontaneous as many felt betrayed. Some even feel that the lenient verdict was the result of several hartals and picketing by the Jamaat, which has threatened a civil war if the verdict went against Molla. Not surprisingly, Quadir Molla flashed a victory sign after the verdict was announced. The question being asked is: what prompted this verdict when the first verdict by the same court granted the death sentence to Abul Kalam Azad (Bacchu razakar), a former Jamaat member who is now absconding? Was the trial court apprehensive or did the government strike a deal as many people suspect? The fact is that several eyewitnesses to these crimes did not care for the consequences and came out in open to stand witness against influential members of the Jamaat, which indicated how strongly they felt about it even after four decades. Many of them argue that life will not be easy if the Jamaat comes back to power.

The conclusion of this trial is important for Bangladesh and its evolution as a nation state. There needs to be a closure to the long pending cry for justice especially from the families who have lost their loved ones. It is difficult for them to accept that the people who were allegedly responsible for mass killing, rape and atrocities inflicted on them and were against the liberation of Bangladesh are roaming scot-free and enjoying the fruits of freedom for which their near and dear ones laid down their lives. This trial is historic and will have a significant bearing on the life of the Bangladeshi nation. The Awami League and the BNP cannot escape their responsibility for the successful conduction of this trial without prejudice. Perhaps, this time around also the Bangladeshi youth will show the way to the political leadership as was the case in 1971 when the youth made the flag of Bangladesh and handed it over to the political leadership and dreamt of freedom which the politicians could not dare.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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