Bangladesh – A Nation Divided? – Part 7
In 2010 the Government of Bangladesh (GOB), led by the Awami League (AL), set up an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) court to prosecute the people who allegedly committed war crimes during the liberation war. It was part of her 2008 election promise and touted as an effort to "provide justice for victims of atrocities in the 1971 war of independence." Many in the opposition parties have charged that the ICT trials are politically motivated and are part of the ruling party’s fascist agenda to liquidating its formidable opposition, esp. the Jama’at. Many have questioned the wisdom behind the ICT after nearly four decades when eyewitnesses are hard to find and memory of the war days fading. To many victims of the 1971 War, the trial, however, is seen as a closure of their past wounds. They see the trial and the verdict as justice delayed but not denied.
Several trials were concluded in early 2013: Abul Kalam Azad, a popular TV personality, was convicted of eight charges and sentenced to death in absentia in January 2013. Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of the opposition Jama’at-e-Islami (JI), was convicted of five of the six charges and sentenced to life imprisonment on February 5, 2013. His sentence was greeted with much cynicism and anger. Given the history of Bangladesh’s back-door political deals, there was speculation of an AL-JI détente whereby the JI leaders’ lives were to be spared in return for JI breaking its alliance with the BNP. It’s against that backdrop that the so-called ‘Shahbag Awakening’ began. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets and gathered in Shahbag Square, Dhaka in protests to demand that Mollah be hanged.
Forgotten was the notion of innocent until proven guilty, or the concept of a fair trial, or the independence of the judiciary.
In addition to banning the JI, the Awakening called for social boycott and government actions against banks, businesses and social service providers linked with Jama’at. Within days, several Islamic financial and charitable institutions – perceived to have ties with the JI – were attacked by miscreants who were directly linked or indirectly influenced by the Shahbag movement - creating panic, especially, within the banking sector. As the protesters in Shahbag Square grew rowdy and the law and order situation deteriorated, bearded Muslims in the capital city felt insecure about going out, even to mosques, alone. Copies of some pro-JI and pro-BNP newspapers were symbolically burned by the protesters who demanded banning of all Muslim religiously motivated political parties, esp. the JI. The offices of newspaper, Naya Diganta, deemed pro-Jama’at, were subsequently attacked and burnt by miscreants within the movement.
With the revelation, thanks to the opposition daily – the Amar Desh, that some of the key organizers had previously blogged in the Internet mocking Islamic practices and using profanity against the Prophet of Islam, the movement soon came to be perceived as being hijacked by rabidly anti-Muslim, secular fundamentalists. At least two of the organizers had anti-Islam blogs. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, one of them said, “Us pushing for the death sentence is the tip of the iceberg; this is a way to begin to unravel religion from politics.” The movement, increasingly, came to be seen not only as anti-Muslim but also fascist. Subsequently, a blogger known for spewing his hatred of Islam in the Internet was murdered by some Muslim zealots. And worse yet, some of the key organizers of the movement were seen staying at the nearby government-run medical university, thus, creating the obvious impression that the government was patronizing anti-Islamic rogues.
The situation took a more violent turn after the ICT, on February 28, sentenced Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a popular preacher and the Nayeb-e-Ameer of Jama’at. He was convicted of eight charges of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging after finding him guilty of two war crimes. Following this verdict, supporters of the JI took to the streets in protest, leading to clashes between them, the Shahbag protesters (who arguably had influenced the verdict), and the security forces attempting to control the protests. More than a hundred people died between February 5 and March 7, most of them in police firing according to media and human rights groups. The video clips from Chittagong also showed that some Hindu police officers had abused power to kill JI protesters in what can only be described as execution-style murders.
Sayeedi’s defense lawyers at the ICT trials have argued that his was a case of mistaken identity saying that the notorious Delwar Hossain Shikdar alias "Deilla Razakar", responsible for war crimes, had been apprehended and executed by freedom fighters after the liberation. Reacting to Sayeedi’s verdict, the International Commission of Jurists said the perpetrators of atrocities “should be brought to justice, not subjected to vengeance.”
In late 2012, near the end of Sayeedi's trial, Skype conversations (17 hours between August and October of 2012) and e-mails (230 exchanged up to September 2012) between the presiding judge of the ICT, Nizamul Huq, and Ahmed Ziauddin, a Brussels-based lawyer, were leaked out in the media (including the YouTube), which showed that the GOB had pressured and attempted to intervene in the ICT deliberations in order to speed up the proceedings. The neutrality and independence of the presiding judge was also called into question by the Economist, UK, which noted that “even before the court had finished hearing testimony from the defence witnesses, Mr Nizamul was already expecting a guilty verdict. These concerns are so serious that there is a risk not only of a miscarriage of justice affecting the individual defendants, but also that the wrongs which Bangladesh has already suffered will be aggravated by the flawed process of the tribunal. That would not heal the country’s wounds, but deepen them.” (December 15, 2012)
Although Mr. Huq promptly resigned, and a new presiding judge was appointed, according to the Economist (March 23, 2013), “The number of defence witnesses was curtailed. One was even kidnapped on the steps of the court. In one case, the presiding judge resigned and the death sentence was handed down by three men who had not heard all the witnesses. In another, the defendant was represented by a lawyer who did not have nearly enough time to prepare a case. That also ended in a death sentence. These are profound judicial failings...”
On May 16, 2013, the New Age - an English newspaper – trusted for objective journalism, published extracts from a statement of Sukhranjan Bali, a long missing Hindu witness in the ICT, which he had given whilst in jail in India. He said that he was abducted by the Bangladeshi police from the entrance to the ICT and after six weeks in detention, forced across the border into India where he was arrested by the BSF for trespassing. “The apparent abduction of a witness in a trial at the ICT is a cause for serious concern about the conduct of the prosecution, judges and government,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Among many questions is who ordered the abduction, and how senior the officials involved were.” The press release pointed to the failure of both the government and the tribunal to set up an independent investigation of the alleged abduction at the time it took place.
Interestingly, on May 18, the Daily Star, quoting a BBC report, claimed that Bali had confessed to entering India illegally and that during police interrogation he had not mentioned of either being abducted or later pushed in. Given the conflicting nature of the reports, the ITC should initiate an enquiry, preferably by an independent commission, to determine the veracity of the allegations and, in case these are true, identify the people who had masterminded and perpetrators of the abduction so that they could be prosecuted and punished.
The Human Rights Watch, New York, has been critical of the conduct of the ICT since November 2011, accusing that it has not provided enough protection for the defense of the accused. It has said that "lawyers representing the accused before the ICT have reported being harassed by state officials and threatened with arrests. Several witnesses and an investigator working for the defense have also reported harassment by police and threats for cooperating with the defense." It has long called for the ICT to establish an effective victim and witness program which would ensure protection for both prosecution and defense witnesses.
Progressively, the protests for and against the verdicts sharpened along the religious/irreligious lines with extremists on either side – destabilizing the state. The former group, led by Hefazat-e-Islam, an almost obscure group unknown to the public until lately, has held some of the largest rallies and procession marches in various parts of Bangladesh in recent months alleging that ‘Islam is under attack’. Its million-man rally in Dhaka on April 6 is probably the largest rally ever in Bangladesh’s history. It enjoys grass root support from thousands of religious seminaries and has pressed for, amongst 13 demands, a blasphemy law to punish all those bloggers who had satirized and insulted Islam or had made statements supporting anti-Islamic and atheist principles, largely through blogs and other electronic media. The group also decried the omission of the dictum of “full faith and trust in Allah” from the book of the Constitution.
In response, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reaffirmed that Bangladesh is a secular state. Her government arrested four bloggers for hurting religious sentiments of the people. Two of them have since been released on bail. Police in Bangladesh also arrested the acting editor of Amar Desh on several charges, including sedition. The newspaper is accused of epitomizing yellow journalism to polarize the public.
On May 5, 2013 hundreds of thousands of Hefazat supporters, which included many teenagers and students drawn mostly from the madrassas, led a “siege of Dhaka” from the early hours of Sunday to press home their 13-point demand. The activists blockaded the entry points of the city and staged a grand rally at Shapla Chattar of Motijheel Commercial Area. Bloody clashes followed, and the political elements within the Hefazat leadership who maintained liaison with the 18-party opposition leaders, began echoing the opposition slogan of dislodging the government from power. With sticks, bamboos, bricks and rocks, they fought pitched battles with the police and ruling party vigilantes turning the Purana Paltan, Bijoy Nagar and Kakrail areas into virtual battlefields. They were seen attacking the office of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) at Purana Paltan and setting fire to it. They attacked the central office of the ruling Awami League at Bangabandhu Avenue in the afternoon.
On Sunday evening, Hefazat leader Shah Ahmed Shafi declared that their 'peaceful' Shapla Chattar sit-in would continue until their 13-point demand is met, defying a government warning to evacuate the area. Soon thereafter the electricity was cut off from the Motijheel area. Later, smokes of fire were seen coming from the small shops on the footpaths in the Baitul Mukarram area, which were blamed on the Hefazat activists. The government also shut down two TV channels (the Diganta and the Islamic TV), which had been covering the anti-government rally.
Hefazat and some anti-AL dailies, however, disputed those reports of arson and vandalism saying that the ruling party goons had carried out destruction of properties and torched small shops including bookstores which were selling the holy Qur’an. They also accused the security forces of indiscriminate shooting of the protesters.
Soon after the midnight, in the early AM hours of Monday, May 6 government security forces went on the offensive, arresting some and chasing out other leaders of the Hefazat, and gunning down several members. The Amar Desh reported that some 3,000 were killed in what it described as the ‘midnight massacre’. Most of the corpses were reportedly hidden and transported to some remoter places by trucks by the law enforcement agencies to escape public wrath and international condemnation. Hefazat leaders said their workers were victims of pre-planned massacre without any warning and the death tolls stood between two and three thousand. The opposition BNP has compared it to the dishonorable Jalianwalabagh massacre of the colonial British government. “It may only be compared with March 25 midnight massacre of unarmed people in the city by the Pakistani forces in 1971 in our time,” BNP leaders said. Never before in the last 42 years’ history of Bangladesh had such political killings occurred, they said, adding voice with rights groups at home and abroad including the Amnesty International for an international probe into the killing.
Independent news sources, however, put the figure at approximately 50 dead, with others succumbing to injuries later. The dead include several security personnel.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Hefazat recruited boys from madrassas to participate in the “siege.” Many of the boys were unaware of the risks of marching into Dhaka. “Putting children in harm’s way is extremely irresponsible,” Brad Adams of the Human Rights Watch said. “Hefazat can’t credibly claim that it didn’t understand the risks, particularly as many of its supporters engaged in attacks on police that were then met with an armed response.”
“The toxic swirl of rumour and rhetoric surrounding the protest of May 5-6 will only get worse unless the government acts quickly in a transparent manner,” Brad Adams said. “Given the lack of trust between various parties, it is imperative that these answers come from an independent and impartial body.” “The Bangladeshi government has a responsibility to victims, whether protesters, bystanders or police, to ensure that an effective investigation is carried out into each death.”
Recently Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has accused the BNP leadership of conspiring to topple her administration by forming an alliance with the Hefazat.
The crisis in Bangladesh is sure to widen as more war crimes verdicts are handed down at the ICT and as elections scheduled for late 2013 or early 2014 approach. On May 9, the ICT handed down death sentence to Mohammad Quamruzzaman, an assistant secretary general of Jama’at. He is the fourth accused who was convicted for the 1971 crimes siding with Pakistani troops. The prosecution lawyers earlier said he was the chief the Al Badr, an auxiliary force to the Pakistan army during the liberation war, who had led several operations in Mymensingh and Sherpur region.
The ICT verdicts handed out thus far gives the unmistakable impression that the government priorities are to totally annihilate the Jama’at one way or another. Not a single alleged war criminal from the Muslim League (now mostly belonging to the BNP) has yet been sentenced. In contrast, the entire top tier leaders of the JI are in jail for alleged war crimes, and the second tier are in jail for opposing the war crimes trial process. Much of the third and fourth tier has gone underground to avoid arrest. Its grass-root meetings have been frequently disrupted by local administration.
Many see in such draconian measures Awami League’s election strategy to neuter the BNP and its alliance of a vital support from the religious elements which it had otherwise enjoyed. Will this strategy work or will it backfire?
>>>>>>>>>>>> To be concluded in the next part.