The frequent passing of court judgments and the dealing out of heavy penalties in the long-drawn-out war crimes trials in Bangladesh are stirring popular imagination throughout the country and the globe as well. Facebook, twitter and blogs are flooded with torrents of abuse and insults hurled at the war criminals. It seems as if the people of Bangladesh, after a long string of disappointments over the years, have started seeing a glimmer of hope for the dispensation of justice through the war crime trials that lay buried for more than four decades. It is so brave of the people of Bangladesh that they have disproved the old cliché that 'justice delayed is justice denied.' It has rather been proved that the course of justice cannot be obstructed by any lapse of time.
There are no words to condemn the gruesome crimes perpetrated in an unprovoked killing frenzy against the civilian population of Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971. It is the blackest chapter in the history of Bangladesh for this mass genocide and terrible torture against the people of Bangladesh that exceeded even the Nazi barbarity. The 1971 holocaust was made to happen in order to execute a dastardly conspiracy to wipe out the prospect of a secular-democratic Bangladesh. The conspiracy, however, was aborted in the end through an ocean of blood, and, as usual, the cases of crimes against humanity came to trial. Though the legal process encountered a stumbling block after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib as the country was taken over by the anti-liberation forces, it resumed in 2009 after Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina came to power. We are looking forward to harsher penalties for the killers, their accomplices and the conspirators to ease the pains of the bereaved families of the martyrs, to remove the long-borne national stigma, and above all, to pave the way for justice and fair play anytime and anywhere in the world.
It is a globally acknowledged fact that the gallant people of Bangladesh have fought a war of independence in 1971 against the Pakistan occupation army and their local lackeys --- the collaborators. They were known as Razakars, Al-Badr, and Al-Shams, and were heavily made up of the leaders and votaries of the then Jama'at-e-Islami now Jama'at-e-Islami Bangladesh. That Jama'at-e-Islami was opposing the Liberation War has been substantiated by a hundred and one living evidences. Our Liberation War is the most glorious event in our history; our freedom fighters are the most valued persons of our country while the Razakars are the archenemies of the people. They were the collaborators of the Pakistan Occupation Army. Golam Azam was the supremo and the ringleader of 70,000 Razakars working under different factions with different names. He was a party to the atrocious genocide, the rapes, and the molestation of millions of Bengali women, and the most barbaric act of killing hundreds of pro-liberation intellectuals. In these vile occurrences, he was assisted by his top associates --- Matiur Rahman Nizami, Abdul Qader Mollah (Butcher Qader), Ali Ahsan Mujaheed, Abul Kalam Azad (Bachchu Razakar), AKM Yusuf, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, Mir Quasem Ali, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi and many others. There are telltale clues to their crimes against humanity many of which have already been adduced before the war crimes tribunals.
A camp of the non-Bengali Muslims was added to killers' gang, and the combined force forged some paramilitary units, which were trained by the Pakistan army. The paramilitary units named Al-Badr and Al-Shams played the key role in the heinous task of intellectuals killing. In June 1971, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Sydney Schanberg made a candid report on that. In his words: "Throughout East Pakistan the army is training new paramilitary home guards or simply arming 'loyal' civilians, some of whom are formed into peace committees. Besides, Biharis and other non-Bengali, Urdu-speaking Moslems, the recruits include the small minority of Bengali Moslems who have long supported the army-adherents of the right-wing religious parties such as the Muslim League and Jama'at-e-Islami led by Golam Azam and Motiur Rahman Nizami. These groups collectively known as the Razakars, the paramilitary units spread terror throughout the Bengali population. With their local knowledge the Razakars were an invaluable tool in the Pakistani Army's arsenal of genocide." After Schanberg made a number of eyewitness accounts for the New York Times, the Pakistan Army expelled him from the country on June 30, 1971.
It was December 1971. The Occupation Army was coming near to a crushing defeat. While the raiding forces were on the verge of surrender to the freedom fighters sensing an impending danger, they hit upon a wicked plan to cripple the country by killing its standard-bearers --- the intellectuals. They shot the last bolt. On December 14, the Pakistan Army let loose the paramilitary units to kill the intellectuals --- teachers, politicians, scientists, physicians, lawyers, journalists, and others. The way the illustrious children of our soil were killed was diabolical. They were rounded up like cattle, bound, blindfolded, and led to torture chambers at Mirpur, Muhammadpur, Nakhalpara, Razarbag, and finally taken to Rayerbazar, where they were gunned down like sitting ducks. The final toll rose to over 200.
What we, today, call 'war crimes' has a long history. In fact, perfidy has existed in human societies since time immemorial. In the modern legal world, it is usually tried under customary laws. In the Hague Convention of 1899 and 1907, these customary laws were clarified. The concept of 'war crime' however, has developed through the Nuremberg trials, which were held basing on the definition of the London Charter published in 1945. The customary law defines 'war crimes' as crimes against humanity and peace. Over the last century, many other treaties also introduced positive laws that put constraints on belligerents in light of which the nature of war crime can be determined. War crimes include mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilian and mass murder or genocide. Under the Nuremberg principles, the supreme intentional crime is that of waging a war of aggression. In addition, the war crimes that are defined in the statute, which established the International Criminal Court, include: a) Breaches of the Geneva Convention, such as deliberate killing or causing great suffering or serious injury to body or wealth; b) Torture or inhuman treatment; and c) Unlawful deportation, confinement, or transfer.
The people who killed or helped to kill the people of Bangladesh during the war are war criminals by all implications of the term. They are in breach of the Geneva Convention, and have crossed all limits of simple human decency in their treatment of people during a war. They joined hands with Pakistan occupation force that wilfully launched an armed war of aggression against the innocent peace-loving people and unarmed civilians. They inflicted untold sufferings, irrecoverable physical and economic harm on them, and caused wanton destruction to national wealth. They made the abducted intellectuals undergo cruel confinement and barbaric torture in the torture chambers, until they were killed. They have successfully fulfilled all the conditions of being war criminals. They should have been tried much earlier on the sovereign soil of independent Bangladesh. But quite unfortunately for us, the long arm of the law could not even touch the tuft of their hair for long. Little by little, they have gained ground. Backed by the opportunist power hunters of the right-wing coalition, they too, have been able to feel the taste of power.
We know it full well who the war criminals really were. The party they belonged to remained banned until 1975. The ban was lifted by the sole beneficiaries of Bangabandhu killing who had taken over power by criminal conspiracy after August Tragedy (1975). The party resumed their activities with renewed interest, and posed serious threats to the hardest earned ideals of our Liberation War. We failed to try the war criminals for a long time! But it is never late to mend. One government's failure to do it should not justify other government's indifference to doing it. What we have always had is a tremendous popular support about this trial. On the other hand, there remains a considerable public disquiet about the government's inaction to do it. One of the major reasons for BNP's political debacle is its indifference to this public demand or the escapist politics of ifs and buts regarding the war crimes trial. The demand for the trial is so strong that even the reasonable legal delays by the pro-trial Awami League Government, sometimes, cast a feeling of doubt and uncertainty on the effectiveness of the trial. And because of this candlelit vigil by the masses against the war crimes, the long-awaited trials of the war criminals are producing the desired result. Some of the major criminals have been under sentence of death. One has already been executed by hanging. The people are looking forward to seeing how the Government carries out the whole trial procedure, accomplishes this serious task, and fulfils popular expectation. This bold move on the part of Sheikh Hasina's Government would earn them great political gains and make up for many future losses.
The convicted and the accused criminals, however, are not taking their fates lying down. While the whole gamut of the fundamentalist politics in Bangladesh from Jama'at to JMB is going through a sticky patch, and the marked war criminals are languishing in prison, their hired hands are trying to clutch at straws by manufacturing weird stories with a view to fishing in the troubled waters. Their motive is to pass the buck to others, and prove the accused innocent. They try to establish that there was no war between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and there should be no question of the existence of war criminals in Bangladesh. They point their accusing finger at the Pakistani occupation army, and ask to try the 195 captured Pakistani soldiers who were allegedly acquitted as per the conditions of the Simla Treaty drawn up on July 2, 1972. There were obvious reasons for that. 400,000 Bangladeshis stranded in West Pakistan during the Liberation War were held hostage by the Pakistan government, who used them as a bargaining chip to free the Pakistani war criminals captured in Bangladesh. Besides, 16,000 Bangladeshi civil servants were dismissed from job and barred from leaving Pakistan. Many of the army officers were put in concentration camps. So, while Bangladesh made an attempt to try those 195 POWs (prisoners of war) keeping them out of the repatriation process negotiated for the release of most of the stranded Bengalis and Pakistanis, Bhutto furiously refused and threatened that if Bangladesh carried out the trial, Pakistan too would hold similar tribunals against the Bangladeshis detained in Pakistan. The Pakistan Government also rejected Bangladesh's right to try the prisoners of war on criminal charges and quickly seized 203 Bengalis as 'virtual hostages' for the 195 soldiers. They, however, expressed their willingness to constitute a judicial tribunal on their return to Pakistan, and try them after the fashion of similar international tribunals. Bangladesh, being apprehensive about the fates of 400,000 Bengalis trapped in Pakistan, and to gain access to the United Nations beating China's veto, called a halt to its attempt at trying the Pakistanis in Dhaka with the hope that Pakistan would keep her promise and hold the trial of the accused 195 Pakistani soldiers in their own soil. Upon this formal understanding, the last group of 203 detained Bangladeshis were repatriated to Bangladesh on March 24, 1974. But it is clear that the trial did not result in an acquittal and 195 Pakistanis were not freed without charges. The trial of the local collaborators, however, was being carried out until the killing of Mujib in 1975.
To make the current trial process conditional upon the trial of those 195 accused Pakistani soldiers, as the vested interests are making, is nothing but a legal sleight of hand to save the local war criminals facing the trial or awaiting punishment. It is also an indirect denial of the strong popular demand raised in favour of the trial. Sheikh Hasina in her third tenure as the premier is trying to try and punish the local criminals who were involved in killing, plunder, arson attacks, rape, molestation, and all other crimes against humanity perpetrated against the people of Bangladesh during the Liberation War with the backing of the Pakistani occupation army. They are, too, war criminals for aiding and abetting the war criminals, and in one sense more criminal than their Pakistani masters are. The occupation army could not have inflicted the massacre by themselves, if these local collaborators had not assisted them. Therefore, to try and punish them many decades after the fact, shall set a precedent for future war crime cases. People of Bangladesh can be the role models for the world in this regard!r
writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University. Email: [email protected]