High-profile arrest galvanises Bangladesh’s 1971 war crimes trial
DHAKA (20 January 2012) — Dancing broke out in the streets of Bangladesh after the prominent arrest of a man the state prosecutor alleges is “the mastermind” of war crimes commited during Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war, when it seceded from Pakistan.
The development is “a significant step forward in the trial of those accused of crimes against humanity”, said Syed Badrul Ahsan, executive editor of news daily The Daily Star.
“Now that Ghulam Azam has been taken into custody, our expectations of a proper, fair and full trial of the war criminals of 1971 take a newer, happier dimension,” Ahsan wrote in his January 18 column.
Azam denies the charges, and his supporters say the case against him is politically motivated.
Azam, 89, was chief of the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party and later a leader of the political opposition in Bangladesh. He was arrested on charges of orchestrating crimes against humanity during the war — including murder, arson, rape and looting. His hearing will start on February 15.
He is also alleged to have created and led pro-Pakistan militias like the Peace Committee (Shanti Committee), Razakar, Al-Badr, and Al-Shams, which carried out numerous murders and rapes during the nine-month war.
“He was the mastermind of all crimes against humanity during 1971,” state prosecutor Syed Haider Ali alleged in an AFP report.
Media reports described people coming out in the streets on January 13, a holiday in Bangladesh, dancing and chanting “we want capital punishment for Ghulam Azam”.
Wheelchair-bound Azam applied for bail on health grounds but this was rejected by the International Crimes Tribunal, the government-constituted court conducting the trial.
Azam is one of the most high-profile Islamists to have been arrested since the Awami League government set up the tribunal on March 25, 2010, as part of its 2008 election promise to bring all war criminals to trial. In November 2011, another Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Delawar Hossain Sayedee, became the first of seven suspects to face the tribunal on charges relating to the 1971 war.
But the 1971 war crimes trial is proving to be a challenge for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as many of the key defendants are also her bitter political enemies. Jamaat-e-Islami is a key constituent of a political alliance led by former prime minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia. Two leaders in Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) face similar charges. Both the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami have rejected the tribunal as a government “show trial”.
Worryingly for the government, many international rights groups have also expressed similar views about the tribunal.
New York-based Human Rights Watch and other similar groups have asked the government of Bangladesh to clarify the definition of “charges” and to allow the accused to question the tribunal’s impartiality — not allowed under Bangladeshi law.
Law Minister Barrister Shafique Ahmed on January 16 reiterated that the war crimes trials are fair and up to international standards.
“We want to ensure fair justice, so nobody should doubt the prosecution of the war crimes trial. I want to assure that it’ll be of international standard,” he said at a roundtable in Dhaka organised by Bangladesh based inter-governmental organisation, the Centre on Integrated Rural Development for Asia and the Pacific.
“I request the international community not to be misled by false allegations by lobbyists engaged by those accused in the war crimes trial,” he said, adding that nobody would be prosecuted for political revenge.
“Anyone who is questioning the International Crimes Tribunal is questioning the national judicial system [of Bangladesh] and therefore, the very sovereignty of the country,” Professor Mizanur Rahman, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, told the roundtable.
The war crimes trial is not an ordinary trial, but an act that might define the future of the nation, Rahman said. Warning the liberal voices of Bangladesh, he said that “if you fail to complete the trial, darkness will never end and nobody will come to protect you”.
Azam went into exile after Pakistani soldiers surrendered to a joint force led by India on December 16, 1971. He was a permanent resident of England until 1978, when he returned to Bangladesh on a Pakistani passport. He maintained Pakistani citizenship until 1994 because the Bangladeshi government refused to grant him citizenship.