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Bangladesh’s Long Wait For Justice

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In 1971 East Pakistan began its war of independence with West Pakistan, a nine-month conflict in which of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Bengali's were killed or murdered.

From this struggle Bangladesh was born.

But the legacy of the killings carried out at the hands of Pakistan's auxiliary forces continues to this day, with many demanding justice for what they refer to as genocide.

Now 38 years on, after repeated failures the countries government says it is ready to prosecute those responsible for the genocide.  

On a recent visit to the capital Dhaka our reporter Katie Hamann met with families of those who were killed and others pushing for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal.

She asked them why it has taken so long and whether justice can finally be achieved.


Apel Mahmood was a singer and activist when East Pakistan began it’s war of liberation with West Pakistan in 1971.

His songs inspired the so-called freedom fighters in their struggle for the creation of Bangladesh.

“The meaning of this song is; I am fighting to make this world a garden, I am fighting to make this world smiling, I am fighting to keep the mother and child smiling, I am fighting for peace in the whole world.”

There is disagreement about just how many died during the nine-month civil war.
Conservative estimates put the figure at around five-hundred thousand, but many in Bangladesh believe up to three million civilians were killed.

Shamoli Nasrin Chowdhury’s husband, a doctor and independence sympathizer was one of up to 500 intellectuals slaughtered in the capital Dhaka just hours before independence was officially declared on December 16th 1971. 

“In this picture you can see there are dead bodies; all are intellectuals, they were murdered by auxiliary forces of the Pakistani military. They took these people from their houses and tortured them, brutally and then they killed them and here is you see my husband, Dr Alim Chowdhury.”

She claims that the man who betrayed Shamoli’s husband to Pakistani forces later served in Bangladesh’s government.

“He became Minister you know. They knew that they are killers, but they made them all ministers. This man was religion minister and education minister … see … this happened in this country.”

Many alleged war criminals and previous supporters of Islamist Pakistan have served in successive governments in Bangladesh, repeatedly thwarting efforts to bring those responsible for the 1971 genocide to justice.

But Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made the establishment of a war crimes tribunal one of her key election platforms late last year.

Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led the movement for Bangladesh’s independence and is commonly known as the ‘father of the nation’.

Sheik Hasina has much at stake in the push for the trial of war criminals.

That’s according Writer and filmmaker, Shahriar Kabir whose two cousins were killed during the independence war.

“Well it is the voters, it is the people of Bangladesh mainly for the trial of the war criminals, if they fail they have to face the next election and the voters definitely they will reject this party or this grand alliance if they don’t try. And they know the pulse of the people, the entire people is united on this issue.”

The process of establishing the war crime tribunal has been complicated because the countries existing International Crimes Tribunal Act created in 1973 was considered too old.

Amendments to the law have recently been passed by the parliament.

Observers and human rights groups say that the law needs to be brought into line with current international laws to ensure that cases are strong and cannot be rejected in appeals courts.

Asif Saleh is the director of Bangladeshi human rights organization Drishtipat.

He is concerned that the recent amendments have been rushed through the government.
“My worry is that in six months, for the sake of the trial they may actually try some high profile war criminals, but if it’s not done the proper way, if evidence is not handled the proper way, they may get out of jail by appealing later on, on a technicality and that would be the worst case. Not will we not have any closure as a nation; various perpetrators will come out saying it has been proven in the court that they had no blood on their hands.”

Others worry there is a lack of willingness to establish the courts.

Lawyer and Supreme Court expert Shadin Malik says delays in appointing a team of prosecutors and judges do not bode well.

Q. At this stage there is no prosecutors, no judges … no?

“No nothing. What I am saying is that you start with one prosecutor, let him set up an office … then you add another two, three, four … I mean the government has not appointed … two months ago the minister was saying we’ll appoint our first prosecutor tomorrow, and then tomorrow, then they said tomorrow for three weeks. Now they’re not saying tomorrow anymore.”

There are also concerns that the trials could be reduced to a witch-hunt with the incumbent Awami League government seeking to silence political opponents and Islamist parties.

But for those who like Shahriar Kabir survived the horrors of 1971 or who grew up in its shadow Bangladesh’s society will continue to suffer its legacy.

“Killing three million people, if they go unpunished how we can claim that we are a civilized nation. If you do not try the criminals, this kind of crimes, this types of killings or raping, [will be] repeat again and again. If you want to restore and create an atmosphere of civil society, atmosphere of democracy, rule of laws and justice, you have to try it, there is no other option.”

Kabir would like to see more support for his government’s efforts from Bangladesh’s neighbors and western powers.

The United Nations has yet to recognize the actions of Pakistan during 1971 as “genocide”. Pakistan has also refused to cooperate or acknowledge the scale of the crimes, suggesting Bangladesh “move on” from this history.

But Britain says it will supply documents and other evidence to assist with the prosecutions. 

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 16 February 2010 15:04 )  

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