Trying war criminals

This article was originally published on Pakistan’s the Express Tribune newspaper on 14 March 2013**

March 24, 2013


Over 100,000 people gathered at the Projonmo Chottor (Generation Square) in Dhaka, on February 5. Ten roles of robe, each containing 10,000 signatures, had one clear demand to make to the government of Bangladesh. People want no less than capital punishment for the war criminals of 1971, called the rajakars (traitors), and will not leave the Square until their demand is met. The public protest did not dissipate for days; instead, it spread all over the country, which has become a ‘gonojagoron moncho’, meaning a stage for public awakening.

For Bangladesh, demanding justice for the war crimes of 1971 does not mean going backwards. Instead, it is about righting the wrongs that were committed in the past, in the search for a future. The unwavering demand of hundreds of thousands of youth at the Projonmo Chottor, demonstrates that the country’s history is sacred and dear to their identity. For the young generation of Bangladeshis, reconciliation with the events of 1971 can only be achieved through retributive justice for a pragmatic reason — only capital punishment can ensure justice because life imprisonment would mean giving the criminals a second life. The Bangladeshis know very well that as soon as the opposition party comes to power in the future, they may acquit the convicted criminals, who belong to their coalition party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Certain quarters of society have raised the ethical question about the justification of capital punishment — an untimely debate held only to derail the movement of Projonmo Chottor. Furthermore, the international media has shown a dearth of interest in covering the protest, since the non-partisan movement is too peaceful and unpopular for a sensational media story. A Muslim-dominated country, demanding fair trial against a religious faction, is opposed to the image the media can sell well. And, of course, politicians of all camps are waiting to exploit the situation one way or another for their party’s gain.

Moreover, the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh, established by the current ruling party, the Awami League, has encountered several logistical pitfalls and difficulties. Trying war criminals after an unfortunate span of 42 years is meant to be difficult and challenging, especially when many of the indictees were allowed to reign free for so long. Also, there are many war criminals who are not yet indicted and enjoy privileged positions in other political parties.

However, the message that the people clearly conveyed at the Square in Dhaka, is that they don’t want to see a politically-motivated trial, where criminals receive biased verdicts or the politicians put undue pressure on judges for hasty verdicts. The people have also made it clear that there is no place for the JI in Bangladeshi politics anymore, for the war crimes of some of their leaders are very well-documented. Citizens have rightfully called to boycott businesses, banks and services that are affiliated with the JI. For the first time in Bangladesh, the martyrs of 1971 are being respected under the aegis of the people’s conscience.

For Pakistan, it is an opportunity to mend ties rather than further widen the gap with Bangladesh. Allegations were made that Pakistan was initially interfering in Bangladesh’s tribunal process. Although Pakistan later clarified that it would not meddle in Bangladesh’s internal affairs, it never apologised for its involvement in the 1971 genocide. The war may have been one between India and Pakistan for the Pakistanis but it was a war of liberation for the Bangladeshis and carries great significance for them. The horrible stories of hundreds and thousands of deaths and rape cases during the ‘71 war will never be wiped out from the conscience of the Bangladeshis.

Pervez Hoodbhoy recently wrote in an article in this newspaper, “Shahbag Square — why we Pakistanis don’t know and don’t care”: (February 16) “The disinterest [of the Pakistanis] in Shahbag Square [the Projonmo Chottor] epitomises the enormous gulf that separates Bangladesh from Pakistan.” Therefore, the movement of Projonmo Chottor presents an opportunity for the young generation of Pakistanis to reach out to the young generation of Bangladeshis. It is an opportunity to revive a dialogue of reconciliation through the acknowledgement of the events and genocide of 1971, by sharing information and learning about each other’s perspectives.

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