War crimes trial reopens Bangladeshi wounds

By Philip Hensher

A Bangladeshi activist gets fired up during a protest in the capital, Dhaka. Photo / AP
A Bangladeshi activist gets fired up during a protest in the capital, Dhaka. Photo / AP

Bangladesh's capital Dhaka is a noisy, exciting city, full of energy and argument.

The protest now happening outside the national museum is of an unprecedented nature, and on an unprecedented scale.

Since February 5, Bangladesh has been transfixed by this ongoing, immense protest. Hundreds of thousands have occupied Shahbagh Square in protest at a verdict passed by the International Crimes Tribunal on war crimes committed during the genocide which preceded the founding of the country in 1971.

One of those found guilty, Abdul Kalam Azad, was sentenced to death. Another, however, Abdul Quader Mollah, the assistant secretary general of a Muslim party which collaborated with the genocidaires, the Jamaate-Islami, was given life imprisonment.

The genocide is still too little known about in the West. Before 1971, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, detached from the main body of the country.

The founders had believed that the unity of religion would bind it together. Over time, however, the incompatibility of secular cultures had grown overwhelming. Some of the Pakistani rulers regarded the Bengalis with open racist contempt.

This common hostility towards an immensely rich secular culture reached a tipping point when the leader of the nationalist Awami League, Sheikh Mujib, won a national election. He was imprisoned, and the Pakistani forces began a genocide throughout 1971.

Pakistan has never accepted responsibility for what happened. The official Pakistani estimates were originally only 26,000 dead and two million refugees.

It is thought that at least 200,000 women were raped by the Pakistani forces and their collaborators. There are eyewitness accounts of "rape camps" set up by the Pakistani forces. The numbers, and the names of rape victims, remain disputed. Sheikh Mujib, the first leader of Bangladesh, ordered the destruction of lists.

In the last week of the war, when Pakistani defeat was inevitable and a new nation was clearly about to be born, a concerted effort was made to kill as many intellectual leaders as possible.

The historian R.J. Rummel, who has looked as deeply into it as anyone, concludes that the "final estimate of Pakistan's democide to be 300,000 to 3,000,000, or a prudent 1,500,000".

That was 40 years ago. The Pakistani perpetrators of the war crimes have never been brought to trial after independence. Nor, until recently, have the Bengalis who collaborated with the genocidaires. The trials have operated under threats of violence from a still active Jamaat-e-Islami. Some criminals fled abroad.

The shabby series of amnesties and diplomatic effrontery that left some of the cruellest mass murderers of the century enjoying a peaceful retirement was often challenged by activists, without success.

The rage of the crowds at the life sentence given Mollah is that they know, as so often before, that Sheikh Hasina's Government has not achieved what it could, and a change of government will almost certainly lead to a pardon of imprisoned war criminals. It has done so often in the past.

- Independent

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