Friday, March 1, 2013

Bangladesh Tribunal Prosecution


Maryam Sakeenah

When a friend from Bangladesh gifted me a jute bag with the Bangladesh flag motif painted on it, I asked her to explain the symbolism. She told me it stood for the rising sun over the green fields, reddened with the blood of liberation martyrs.

After the terrible atrocities in 1971 in which many innocent Bengalis lost their lives, retributive justice to the perpetrators of brutal crime needed to be carried out by Pakistan. This was never done, consumed as the country was in an unseeing jingoism. George Orwell wrote in his memoirs of the Spanish Civil War, Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side.’

Resultantly, in Bangladesh, these atrocities have become over the years part of the collective memory and the national narrative. The hurt and anger has festered to the beat of nationalistic fervour and has turned into an unrelenting, bitter hate and hardened prejudice against the enemy.

On the backdrop of this charged nationalistic sentiment, in 2010 the International Crimes Tribunal was established by this government, though its legitimacy and capacity to deliver justice have been put to question by objective observers.  (

There is also the concern that the much-awaited decision announced recently was more a political than judicial decision. The Jamat e Islami is an important part of the political opposition against the current regime. The primary accused belong to the Jamat, widely considered to be complicit in Pakistan army’s violence against the Bengalis in 1971.

Justice is a great thing and often a vital part in healing and reconciliation. The events in Bangladesh carry the pretence of a justice that gratifies the strong national desire for vengeance. Whether real justice can be delivered given the lack of integrity and transparency about the proceedings, is open to question. The presiding judge Nizamul Huq resigned following questions over the publication of private conversations which cast doubt on the court proceedings. The Economist writes, “The e-mails and phone conversations we have seen raise profound questions about the trial... the government tried to put pressure on Mr Nizamul... he worked improperly with a lawyer based in Brussels, and that the lawyer co-operated with the prosecution_ raising questions about conflicts of interest. In Mr Sayeedi’s case (head of JI, given a death sentence this week) it points to the possibility that, even before the court had finished hearing testimony from the defence witnesses, Mr Nizamul was already expecting a guilty verdict.”

Held under the thumb of mass public furore and the voracious appetite for vendetta, the verdict seems to have been preordained. Justice is blinded under pressure of emotionally charged public sentiment, and the hand of blind justice has a fell sweep. George Orwell adds, As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on...  are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis." Doling out death sentences in such an environment is a travesty of justice.  In a conversation of October 14th, between Mr Nizamul and Ziauddin, the Brussels-based lawyer of Bangladeshi origin, the judge refers to the government as “absolutely crazy for a judgment. The government has gone totally mad. They have gone completely mad, I am telling you. They want a judgment by 16th’s as simple as that.” December 16th, known as Victory Day in Bangladesh, is the anniversary of the surrender by Pakistani forces in the war of independence. (The Economist)

While the demand for justice to war criminals is understandable and legitimate, the concern is about whether this public sentiment has been used for political opportunism. Given the traumatic birth of Bangladesh and the horrific memories haunting public imagination, a regime credited with bringing offenders to book will win hearts. Given the many failures and weaknesses of this regime as well as the fact that the Jamat is a vital member of the opposition alliance, there seems to be a method to the madness. 

The social consequences have been grave with violence spiralling out of control. The long-term repercussions are graver still. Opposition to the verdict has been brutally crushed by the state machinery and violent reprisals have victimized hundreds. The crowds calling for a death sentence are led by secular-liberal segments of the society and have massive support from members of the civil society. The opposition to the death sentence comes from the Islamists led by the Jamat e Islami which has sizable following. The scars this will leave will drive a wedge between these two segments along ideological lines. It will accentuate and intensify a dangerous polarization which in the long run shall be in the interests of none. With the two opposed camps locked in confrontation against each other, a state eager to use force and one or both groups- having deep roots into the society-  often violently lashing out against the other, the future looks grim. A gaping split across the social spectrum with a spattering of violence is the perfect recipe for disaster- the same disaster that Pakistan is mired up in. This dampens down the hopes for a stable, peaceful, progressive Bangladesh. 

In this wider context, it becomes apparent that it is not vengeance but clemency that Bangladesh needs. Violence begets violence and sets off a vicious cycle. That vicious cycle needs to be broken. Forgetting bitter memories is hard, but sometimes, a bit of voluntary historical amnesia makes the future clearer and brighter for us. Justice and peace are great ends to be striven for. But the tribunal and its decision is at best a pretense and at worst a grave travesty of justice. Bangladesh is a rapidly progressing country and has risen out of the blood and fire it was born in- I hope its great people would prefer to look ahead, refusing to let their sentiment be used for political purpose. For, when you look towards the sun- which, as my friend explained- is the proud national symbol of a country that deserves to rise out of a bloody past- you let the shadows fall behind you.