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Bangladeshis fear missing chance to right past wrongs
Publication Date : 12-02-2013
More than 40 years after Bangladesh's bloody struggle for independence from Pakistan, a war crimes tribunal has reopened old wounds.
Public outrage boiled over last week after a court spared convicted war criminal Abdul Quader Mollah from the gallows and sentenced him to life imprisonment instead.
The 64-year-old's crimes include killing a family of 11 and helping Pakistani forces massacre more than 360 unarmed civilians during Bangladesh's nine-month struggle for independence in 1971.
Bangladesh, whose language is Bengali, emerged as a new nation from what used to be the eastern half of Pakistan. Its birth saw massive bloodletting as Pakistan's Punjabi-dominated army sought to quell the uprising, which had Indian assistance.
Bangladesh estimates that three million people were killed and at least 200,000 women were raped by Pakistani troops and their local allies during what it terms the genocide of 1971. Although four decades have passed, old wounds fester.
Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have taken to the streets in several cities, including the capital Dhaka, to demand that Mollah be executed.
For many who lived through the horrors of the war - in which abuses were allegedly committed by both sides - justice will not be served until he is hanged.
Dr A.K. Azad Chowdhury, 66, joined the Bangladeshi freedom fighters movement after Pakistani troops slayed civilians, including four of his colleagues at Dhaka University, on March 25, 1971.
"I remember seeing dead bodies scattered just feet away from me, some of the bodies were of children," the chairman of Bangladesh's University Grants Commission said in a phone interview.
"By sentencing Mollah to death, we will show the world that Bangladesh does not have a culture of impunity when it comes to war criminals."
But concerns have been raised about the fairness of the tribunal. In December, a judge quit after it was revealed that he spent hours on Skype seeking advice from an overseas Bangladeshi legal expert.
Tej Thapa, South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Straits Times that these communications render the trials "fundamentally unfair". She said her organisation has called for fresh trials to be held, but that plea has been ignored.
The tribunal was set up in 2010 by the ruling Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
After Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971, there was an urge to try war criminals but the process was derailed after Sheikh Mujibur was assassinated in a military coup in 1975. Despite years of campaigning by victims' families, the issue has begun to be addressed only in recent years.
Mollah is one of several prominent figures within Jamaat-e-Islami - Bangladesh's biggest Islamist political party - who are accused of crimes including genocide, rape and forced religious conversions while backing Pakistan's brutal repression of Bangladesh's independence movement in 1971.
Jamaat-e-Islami, a political ally of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), denies these charges and has threatened to hold national strikes until its members are released.
BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia has called the tribunal "a farce" and has accused the government of using it as a political weapon to hobble the opposition.
The fractious political scene is a reason so many Bangladeshis want Mollah executed, said Dr Chowdhury. There is concern that if he is allowed to live, he could be released in future if the opposition gains power and "sweeps away" the tribunal's verdict.
Against this backdrop, where faith in political and judicial institutions is weak, many ordinary Bangladeshis fear the chance to right past wrongs could be lost.
Many of the protesters demanding Mollah's execution are young people who were not yet born during the conflict but have heard stories about it from their relatives. Many were also inspired by activists posting on social media sites.
Observers say the protests are also about holding the Awami League to account over its 2008 election pledge to bring war criminals to justice, and a broader desire to contain the influence of Islamist groups.
On Sunday, the government appeared to respond to public pressure when it announced that legislation could be amended to allow it to appeal for tougher penalties in war crimes cases, meaning Mollah could eventually be executed.
The 1971 war had an impact on the politics of the entire sub-continent. It remains to be seen if the tribunal can bring some sense of closure to the horrors of the past.