The trial of Bangladeshi war criminals that began on 21 November 2011 has generated many controversies. In March 2010, the Awami League (AL) government constituted the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for the trial of persons accused of committing heinous crimes in the 1971 war. The accused have been tried under the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act and the Collaborators Act - both promulgated in 1973. Most of the accused war criminals belong to the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. In fact, its entire leadership has been held responsible for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. So far, eight Jamaat leaders - Abul Kalam Azad, Abdul Quader Mollah, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, Ghulam Azam, Mohammad Mojahid, Mueen Uddin and Ashrafuz Zaman - have been awarded either life sentences or death punishment. Besides, several other top leaders including its present Ameer (chief) Matiur Rahman Nizami, Abdus Subhan, AKM Yusuf, Azharul Islam and Mir Quasem Ali are in detention and facing trial.
The ICT has also indicted Jamaat as a political party. The investigation agency of the ICT has launched a formal probe into the alleged war crimes committed by Jamaat as an organization in 1971. The tribunal said, “Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party under Professor Ghulam Azam intentionally functioned as a criminal organisation.” The ICT says that militias created by the Jamaat like Razakar, Al-Badr, Al-Shams and Peace Committee worked as auxiliary forces of the Pakistani Army and actively opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.
All the Jamaat leaders convicted or facing trial were key organisers or commanders-in-chief of these militias in their respective localities. The dogmatic religious leaders collaborated with the Pakistani Army throughout the Liberation War and summarily executed scores of intellectuals, students, nationalist leaders and freedom fighters.
For the last forty years, the families of victims have been relentlessly campaigning to bring the perpetrators to justice. Numerous pro-liberation organisations including Ekattarer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee for Uprooting Collaborators and Killers of 1971) led by Saheed Mata Jahanara Imam organised several demonstrations in the 1990s. The campaign for the trial of war criminals transformed into a mass movement at Shahbag, recently renamed as Projjanmo Chattor (Generation Square), following AL’s assumption of power in 2008.
Initiating the trial process was a major election pledge of the AL, the party that once championed the cause of independence under the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Mujib. However, the conviction of war criminals, predominantly of Jamaat origin, has resulted in a highly volatile situation in the country. In the prevailing socio-political scenario, the Bangladeshi polity has become sharply polarised into two camps. A majority of the people identify themselves with the ideals of the independence struggle starting from the 1952 Language Movement culminating in the birth of a Bengali nation through a protracted and bloody Liberation War. However, some conservative politico-religious and reactionary forces that firmly resisted Bangladesh’s independence are not at ease with the concept of secular nationalism. The latter group emphasises the distinct religious identity of the Bangladeshi population and yearns to reform the society based on shariah.
In a landmark judgment in August 2013, Bangladesh High Court scrapped Jamaat’s registration with the Election Commission and disqualified it from contesting future elections since its charter breached the secular provisions of the Constitution. Dhaka’s legal experts maintain that the ruling did not declare the party unlawful but only barred it from participating in the polls on constitutional grounds. The Jamaat challenged the verdict before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court which eventually upheld the High Court order. The Islamist party has been pushed against the wall. A bill was placed in parliament on 16 September 2013 to bar those convicted under the Collaborators Act from becoming voters.
The conviction of prominent Jamaat leaders has sparked violent protests across the country with party activists attacking the police, burning down houses of tribunal and Supreme Court judges and AL leaders, killing witnesses and ransacking Hindu temples. Human Rights Watch says that nearly 150 people have been killed since the first verdict was announced on 21 January 2013.
Bangladesh’s resilient civil society has strongly condemned Jamaat’s violent activities. Dhaka’s leading Bengali daily Prothom Alo criticised the Jamaat in its editorial, saying that “legal battle and street vandalism do not go hand in hand” and called “the new generation of the party leadership to decide if they continue to shoulder the misdeeds of their leaders during the Liberation War.”
The Jamaat says that the trial is politically motivated and its key ally, the BNP, has termed it a ‘farce’. The AL government denies the charge and has cautioned political rivals against defending well-known war criminals who are objects of public derision because of their despicable acts in the country’s war of independence. The schism between the pro and anti-liberation forces has always persisted in the polity. The trial proceedings of war criminals have only sharpened these cleavages and the current trend is likely to continue for sometime.