Justice at last

If Bangladesh was born in violence its attempts to come to terms with its history is also engendering much violence.  An international war crimes tribunal was set up by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government in 2009 to bring to account the perpetrators of atrocities including murders, rapes and various other crimes during  the 1971 war of independence. Along with the Pakistan army, collaborators from the country were also responsible for the large-scale violence and repression. Even after many decades those within the country who colluded with the Pakistani army personnel had gone unpunished and the trials of the war crimes tribunal were intended to bring them to book. The actions of the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, who had supported Pakistan,  have come  under scrutiny and many of them have been convicted and sentenced. The trials are still in progress.

Among those who received harsh sentences were 91-year-old Ghulam Azam, a former chief of the Jamaat, who received a 90-year prison term, its current general secretary Ali Ahsan Mojaheed and some senior leaders. Some of them have been sentenced to death. Jamaat cadres and other Islamic fundamentalist  groups have unleashed widespread violence in the country to protest against the verdicts, terming them vindictive and political. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Begum Khaleda Zia which also has Islamist sympathies has supported the protests. However there is also strong public opinion within the country demanding severe punishment of  the collaborators. The country is deeply polarised on the issue and the violence and unrest are likely to continue.

There is an impression that the trials are not conducted according to the best standards and are lacking in judicial rigour. At the same time the culpability of those who are arraigned before the court is not largely disputed also. What has aggravated the situation and vitiated the responses  is the element of politics that has entered them.  Bangladesh will go for general elections very soon. The Awami League and the BNP, and all other parties including the Islamist groups, want to take electoral advantage of the  trial in different ways. Countries which have gone through cataclysmic experiences like Bangladesh have to come to terms with their history, and set old demons to rest. Unfortunately the exercise itself is becoming divisive in Bangladesh.

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