Abusing the War Crimes Trial

We have witnessed how political exploitation hindered the earlier process of war crimes trial. Over the last four decades, politicisation has been used to embed a division within the society for personal and partisan political benefits. This article reviews some of those post-independence schisms and argues why we need to be vigilant to not let the current trial effort get mired by opportunistic elements.

During the nine months of the Liberation War, like most Bangalis, the Bangali civil servants took a range of roles—some valiantly joined the War with arms, some joined the Mujibnagar government-in-exile to help coordinate administrative and diplomatic aspects of the Liberation War, some went to India, and some stayed back and supported the Mukti Bahini while keeping it together despite assaults from the Pakistani army during the War. Many Bangali civil servants positioned in the pre-war West Pakistan were detained and held hostages by Pakistani government as bargaining chip to free the Pakistani prisoners of war. Not everyone who left the country became a freedom fighter. And most people who stayed in the country or got stranded in Pakistan were not collaborator either. However, the latter groups were seriously discriminated against by the first post-independence administration.

Among those who left the country, many claimed to be the ‘real patriots’. They looked down upon those who stayed back or returned from Pakistan as ‘collaborators’. Even among the civil servants who left the country during the war, there were conflicts between Mujibnagar bureaucrats and others.
Of course there were genuine interests among the freedom fighters to keep the civil and military administration collaborator-free. However, many opportunists also cashed in on their presence in India or relation with political leaders to get recruited or promoted in the administration of the newly liberated country.

Memories of the brutal nationwide genocide by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators were fresh and the emotions were high. To unite the nation and to end arbitrary ‘allegation of collaboration’, government acknowledged and awarded the real freedom fighters with gallantry awards, and initiated the prosecution of real war criminals to ensure truth and justice once and for all. But that trial process was derailed by opposing political interests that abused the process for political gains.

Bangabandhu probably had the right intention for the war crimes trial as it was expressed in an interview given on 7 June 1973. To clarify the purpose of the war crimes trial, he said –

“The crimes against humanity cannot be forgotten; the killing, the raping, the looting must be heard. Three days before the end of the war they killed my intellectuals. They raped and molested 200,000 women, including 13-year old girls. I am not going ahead with these trials for the sake of revenge, but for the sake of humanity” (New York Times, 09.06.1973, p-9).

But some members of his political party probably had other thoughts. Robert MacLennan was a British MP visiting Bangladesh after independence to observe the preparations of the war crimes tribunal. In 1972, he published an article titled “Trials of Error” in the Guardian. Explaining his experience with the trial process, he wrote:

“Some members of the Government may even regard the trials as a method of silencing the political opposition. Last week the Chief Whip of the Awami League, Shah Moazzem Hossain, complained that those who are trying to oppose the League in the general election of March 7 [of 1973] were the same collaborators who had sided with the Pakistan Army junta.” (The Guardian, 01.12.1972, p-12)

To put Mr Hossain’s allegation into context, most leftist political parties including NAP of Maulana Bhashani opposed Awami League in that parliamentary election, and they were anything but collaborators of Pakistan army.

Though opposition parties were not very strong, pursuing the trial of collaborators became difficult amid repeated opposition complains that their supporters were being harassed and arrested on the excuse of collaboration. While some opposition factions indeed sheltered some collaborators, arbitrary allegation by leaders such as Mr Hossain also made things complicated.

After the 15 August massacre, under the pretext of ending the inconsistencies of war crimes trial, the whole trial process was abandoned. Subsequent martial law administrators rehabilitated known collaborators, some of whom were offered important ministerial and government positions. By the 1990s, infiltration of collaborators was so deep within the political system that pro-liberation leaders got charged with treason and known collaborators continued to become part of the government. In the meantime, the call for war crimes trial became intermittent and was raised under certain governments and not others.

A nation cannot remain divided on the question of justice. It’s a world where petty criminals and notorious killers are being prosecuted every day, people go to court to seek justice, and legal and administrative system struggles to end anarchy. In this civilised world, a brutal genocide cannot go untried. Trial of that genocide cannot and should not divide the nation.

But the trial process was derailed by misguided attempts to confuse and divide the public by exploiting the spirit of 1971. It’s these same misguided attempts have meant, over the past two decades, repeated modification of the list of freedom fighters and emergence of conflicting freedom fighters’ associations. While many freedom fighters remained neglected over the past four decades, fake freedom fighters emerged to take reward and government benefits. Those who fought against Bangladesh in 1971, very ironically, began honouring ‘freedom fighters’ in 2009.

None of these campaigns were meant to unite the nation. The purpose was to ‘divide and rule’ the people who wanted justice for the brutal genocide of 1971.

The Awami League is a political party and it may try to gain politically by using the integrity of a sincere trial. Being an opposition, the BNP also has every right to question AL’s sincerity in the trial process. If AL was not the only major political party in Bangladesh that is willing to try the war criminals, we could probably end the debate on war crimes trial earlier. If BNP were politically motivated to end AL’s monopoly on war crimes trial, it would have been better if they could initiate the trial process.

While it missed that opportunity, the BNP still has a role to play, a very important role. They should point out areas of inconsistencies within the current process, and caution the people if AL tries to politicize the trial process. An objective vigilant opposition is essential for the transparency of this trial.

The world is keeping an eye on this trial process, and so should we. If any inconsistency within the trial process becomes evident, by all means, let’s be critical. But for justice’s sake, let’s refrain from abusing the war crimes trial for political purpose.

Some of the claims made by BNP leaders fall short in this regard. Claiming 195 convicted Pakistani soldiers to be the only war criminals; or equating the brutal 1971 genocide with all other crimes since not only fails to hold water, it also ridicules their seriousness.

After the formation of the auxiliary militia force called ‘Razakar’ on 15 July 1971, a ranking Pakistani military officer told the New York Times that—

Ours is a regular army. We recognize that regular armies are not suitable for guerrilla campaigns, as the Vietnam experience has shown. We can shield the external threats, notably India, but only the people can conduct anti- guerrilla warfare (New York Times, 30.07.1971, p-2).

Now, just after four decades of that war, if some columnists, lawyers and political leaders argue that only 195 Pakistani soldiers were responsible for killing and raping all the millions, only those 195 Pakistani soldiers knocked the doors of intellectuals on 14th December, then their motive is rightly questioned.

Some opposition leaders have already raised their concern about the AL’s intention and suggested abandoning of the current trial process. But just because there are cases of injustice or prejudice in our legal system, we do not campaign for a lawless society. Instead, we continuously address loopholes and strive to make the best out of it.

For the same reason, the government shouldn’t abandon the trial process or silence the criticism from the opposition. If the first AL government has any lesson for us, the opposition was not as much of a problem to Bangabandhu as the “chatar dol” was. AL should ensure that opportunists or over-enthusiasts within the party do not interrupt its initiatives. This must not become a witch-hunt or victor’s justice, and the MPs should refrain from randomly accusing every opponent of being war criminals or their sympathisers.

Such abuse of the trial will benefit the real perpetrators. Besides, if such expressive speeches by the MPs are not matched with any significant attainment by the next election, it will backfire.


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