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Activists of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh's biggest Islamist party, stand during a clash with police in Chittagong February 28, 2013.
Jamaat-e-Islami clashes with police in February 2013Image: Reuters

Justice to war criminals

Grahame Lucas / sb
March 1, 2013

Bangladesh's attempt to reconcile its past has created a deep divide in the country, which has been shaken by mass demonstrations over a war crimes tribunal, and by bloody clashes between Islamists and their opposition.


In a second day of violent clashes between protesters and police, more than 40 people were killed on Friday, March 1, in Bangladesh after a special war crimes tribunal sentenced a person found guilty of committing war crimes in 1971 to the death penalty.

Delwar Hossain Sayedee, vice president of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami - many members of which are accused of assisting the Pakistani army in committing genocide in Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence - was the third person to be sentenced by the court in Dhaka.

Mahbubul Alam Haolader, who fought for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 and who was a joint plaintiff in the court case against, told DW he was relieved at the death sentence handed down: "The Pakistani government at the time is responsible for the ethnic cleansing of minorities, the mass rapes, and other atrocities. But without the support of Jamaat-e-Islami, the victims would not have been so easy to identify. The party members committed war crimes."

Violent protests

Bangladesh's parliament is debating a ban on the party. Its supporters, who are against the war crimes tribunal because they say it is politically motivated and flawed, have staged protests - some of which have become violent - and called for strikes in response.

Jamaat supporters say party members were not responsible for war crimes committed more than 40 years ago. For weeks, they have been demanding the war crimes tribunal be stopped immediately. They don't see the special court, which was set up in 2010, as an effort to reconcile with the past, but rather as a stage for Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina Wazed. The Islamists say she is not interested in justice, and is using the special court to act on vendettas with members of the opposition ahead of the next parliamentary elections, which are expected to be held at the end of 2013.

Those opposed to the Islamists have been staging massive demonstrations and demanding the death penalty for all defendants on trial.

A bus set on fire by Islamist activists burns on a street as a Bangladeshi man rides his bicycle in Rajshahi, northwest of Dhaka, on February 28, 2013.
Some Islamists have demonstrated violently in clashesImage: AFP/Getty Images

Political resolve

Meanwhile, no one in Dhaka is questioning Hasina's resolve in continuing the war crimes tribunal. The government has yet to respond to criticism from Western human rights organizations - it does not seem concerned about the question as to whether the evidence that still exists 40 years later is enough to ensure a fair trail. The majority of the public, which wants justice for the crimes committed in 1971 and to bring closure to the bloody nine months, backs Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina's cabinet has demonstrated that it has the will to see the trial to its end - it introduced a bill in parliament to shorten appeal proceedings. If passed, this would make it easier and quicker for judges to hand down the death sentence. Moderate Islamic parties support the government's stance on the tribunal, and have distanced themselves from Jamaat-e-Islami.

Eight Islamic parties have recently formed an alliance. Mujibur Rahman Hamidi, one of the alliance's leaders, told DW: “We also demand justice for war criminals, no matter which party they belong to. But we would not mind if Jamaat-e-Islami were banned."

Coming to terms with the past

The war crimes tribunal was set up to investigate and mete out justice for the atrocities committed during Bangladesh's birth in 1971. Up to 3 million people died in the nine-month war between former West and East Pakistan. Around 200,000 women were brutally raped.

The war of independence started after the government in Islamabad declared Urdu the sole official language. For the Bengali resistance movement, national identity was of vital importance, and part of that identity was the Bengali language.

Nine months later, Bangladesh was declared independent and internationally recognized as such. The insurgents - those who fought against Pakistan - are today considered to be national heroes, while International Mother Language Day, February 21, is celebrated with zest each year.

A Bangladeshi family walks to pay tribute at Martyr's Monument, or Shaheed Minar, on International Mother Language Day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013.
Bangladeshis, young and old, each year celebrate the Bengali languageImage: picture-alliance/AP

Observers have begun to doubt that such a legally flawed tribunal, which sentences people so quickly to death, will be able to make up for the shortcomings in Bangladesh's political landscape. On the other hand, there is also the danger that the country's next government - if it is formed by nationalists and Islamists from the opposition - will dissolve the tribunal.

Either way, Bangladesh runs the risk of not being able to heal its wounds and reconcile the atrocities of its past.

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