LONG WAIT FOR JUSTICE PARTLY FULFILLED AFTER HANGING KAMARUZZAMAN
SYED MEHDI MOMIN
Ideally a person’s death, however barbaric and despicable that person may be, should not be a time for rejoicing. We are not celebrating Kamaruzzam’s death– the second person to be hanged for committing heinous war crimes– but we are satisfied that justice was finally done. The fact that Kamaruzzaman and other war criminals of his ilk were allowed to live as free persons in independent Bangladesh was a blot on the collective conscience of the nation. His death by hanging is one more step towards cleansing a stigma the nation had to carry for 44 long years
Sure we achieved victory against the Pakistan occupation forces and their loathsome Bengali collaborators in 1971. Yet we could not bring under justice those criminal who perpetrated massacres, rape and other atrocities that have few parallels in the history of mankind. On the 25th March crackdown alone as per various reliable reports 19,000 to 25,000 Bengalis were killed. Over the period of just 267 days as many as three million were killed, 30 million were dislodged from their homes and 10 million had to take refuge in neighbouring India. It can safely be said that the Bangladesh genocide is perhaps second only to that of Nazi genocide of Jews in terms of its sheer scale.
Unfortunately after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman embraced martyrdom in 1975 the issue of punishing these criminals was put into the backburner. It was only during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s second term that she revived the process initiated by her father, making good on a pledge she made before 2008 elections. The Sheikh Hasina led government formed the first tribunal in 2010 and had constituted a second one two years later to expedite the trials.
The trials have demonstrated that if people are willing then escaping justice after committing mass crimes is impossible. Throughout the world there have been numerous crimes against people committed by the state or the non-state actors which have gone unpunished. Every peace and justice loving person from rest of the world would agree that people of Bangladesh deserve plaudits for their efforts to ensure justice. And there can be no peace without justice.
It is also true that in addition to the members and sympathisers of the collaborator organisations there is a section of people which does not seem happy with the ongoing trials against the ‘war criminals’. All of them have tried to portray these trials as part of political vendetta, have raised procedural questions and even tried to pressurise the government through their network of international contacts. Leaders of many Islamic countries especially President of Egypt and Prime Minister of Turkey had written letters to their Bangladesh counterparts expressing their ‘displeasure’ over the war crimes tribunal.
Few other Islamic countries had through informal channels also ‘requested’ the Bangladesh government to ‘go slow’ on the trials or ensure that ‘violations of human rights’ does not take place. However to their great credit the government did not let any outside or inside pressure to affect them.
The wheels of justice do not always turn. But when they turn, they do so with the clear message that the perpetrators of old crimes always get their due at a point in historical time. Sooner or later those who commit misdeeds must pay for their acts. Some sins are never expiated. In any case these criminals never regretted their role during 1971 and did not seek apology to the people. They had the audacity to repeatedly stress that what they did in 1971 was totally justified.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina categorically stated that war crime trial is not an act of revenge, these war criminals are a curse to the nation and they should be punished. Accused criminals were guaranteed all universally recognised rights to defend their positions, the right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses, the right not to be self-incriminated and the right of appeal. The war crimes tribunals in Bangladesh are evidence-based. All the defendants had the option to select their own lawyers and they also had the right to appeal in the higher courts to challenge the verdict. All are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. No one can be convicted unless the charges are proven “beyond reasonable doubt.”
This standard was upheld when the tribunal found Abdul Quader Mollah not guilty in one of the six charges against him. In another case, Ghulam Azam was granted additional time to prepare his appeal. Also in accordance with international standards, trials are open to all and did proceed without undue delay. At the same time, the accused were given adequate time and facilities to prepare their cases. Prosecutors must furnish them a list of witnesses along with the copies of recorded statements and documents upon which they intend to rely. Defendants also have an unfettered right to call witnesses and to cross examine prosecution witnesses. The tribunals also abide by the standard that if there is no witness for a crime, there is no conviction. Salauddin Quader Chowdhurry had six of 23 charges dropped because the prosecution failed to bring witnesses to support the charges. He was ultimately acquitted of 14 charges. All of this is in keeping with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is the global standard for civil and political rights. Indeed, that is the entire point of the exercise.
The tribunals have an obligation to remedy serious human rights violations, and at the same time they have to meet or even exceed the global measures of fairness for the accused. They are also not a one-off event, but an ongoing process. Bangladesh must do its best to bring as many war criminals as possible to justice and should not tolerate crimes against humanity in any form. The tribunals’ procedures meet or exceed international standards of fairness – as they should.
Yet despite the documentary and other reliable evidence available about their heinous role, the anti-liberation forces have always claimed war crimes charges had been leveled against its leaders as an act of political vengeance and alleged the tribunal judges had failed to maintain clarity and neutrality and demanded that the verdicts against its leaders be repealed. I have to say except may be for the Skype incident the trials were quite transparent. For those who see selective persecution because so far only a handful of leaders have been made to stand on the dock, it is worth noting that after the World War II during which some 40 million died in Europe alone, only 24 leading persons were indicted before the court at the Nuremberg Trial. There is one thing that should be made absolutely clear. There is a vested quarter which still carries out propaganda to the effect that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pardoned all war criminals.
The truth is quite different. Bangabandhu did not pardon those (Razakers, Al-badr and Al-Shams) that had ‘criminal cases’ and those that committed ‘crime against humanity’ such as rape, murder, arson and the like. As a matter of fact Bangabandhu’s government started prosecuting war criminals immediately after independence and he also passed the Collaborators Act (1972) and the International Crime Act of 1973 that barred re-entry of any collaborators to Bangladesh. He promulgated the Special Tribunal Order on January 24, 1972 (PO No 8 of 1972) after 14 days of his return from the Pakistani jail to try those Pakistani collaborators, Razakars, Al-Badrs and other stooges of the Pakistani army.
Under this order he arrested 37,000 collaborators amidst strong opposition by left-leaning journalists including the famous editor of Holiday Enayetullah Khan whose write-up titled ‘’64 million collaborators’’ is a case in point. Out of them, 26,000 had no serious criminal charges filed against them; therefore they were pardoned and released in a general amnesty. However, nearly 800 people were given jail sentences. Another 11,000 were behind bars including Matiur Rahman Nizami and their prosecution was at various stages of completion.
In addition, those who were involved in ‘crimes against humanity’ and against Bangladesh, was denied Bangladesh nationality and passports. We believe if the great man was alive the perpetrators of those heinous crimes would have been punished a long time back.
There also has been criticism that the war crimes trials are being used by the Awami League government to target opposition leaders. Mobarak Hossain who has been sentenced for committing war crimes during 1971 belonged to the ruling Awami League till he was expelled from the party in 2011. Hossain was the organising secretary of the ruling party in Akhaurha’s Mogra Union for 16 years. However, this fact did not help him evade justice, and rightly so.
It also needs to be appreciated that the task of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal is a daunting one. Investigators have to trawl through decades-old records, record testimonies, and track and verify witnesses. Add to this the fact that there is a constituency in Bangladesh that does not want the trials to be successful. In such circumstances, what Bangladesh has done and is doing is truly historic.
Unfortunately some war criminals have managed to escape punishment. First of all the 195 Pakistani soldiers who were accused of crimes against humanity got away scot-free. These soldiers perpetrated monstrous acts and did not have to pay for it. Many of the 400,000 Bangladeshis who lived were used as by the Pakistani government as bargaining chips to free the accused Pakistani war
16,000 Bangladeshi civil servants were discharged from Pakistan and were barred from leaving the country. Many Bangladeshis were put in concentration camps. However Pakistan did promise that they would try these soldiers inside Pakistan. With faith that Pakistan would hold the trial of the 195 Pakistanis involved in the wartime atrocities, Bangladesh withdrew its demand for trying the Pakistanis in Dhaka.
Then there are those notorious criminals who are still indulging in propaganda against the very concept of Bangladesh. Chaudhary Mueen Uddin who lives in London and Ashrafuzzaman Khan, who is said to be living in New York, were amongst those who were put on trial immediately after – in absentia – for their role in abduction, torture and killing of innocents and heading a militia during the war. Ashrafuzzaman Khan is believed to be the Al-Badr’s chief executor and Chowdhury Mueen Uddin the plan’s operation in charge.
Al-Badr, the militia floated by Jamaat-e-Islami, was entrusted with the heinous job of exterminating Bengali intelligentsia by the Pakistani military in mid Dec 1971 – because it was believed that they were the brain behind the struggle for independence. This writer believes that those who were for undivided Pakistan because of ideological reasons may be pardoned and reintegrated into the society as many already have been. However proven criminals cannot be allowed to escape punishment.
The war crime trials should be taken to their logical conclusion to create a precedent in the country which discourages extremist and radical elements. But the government must act efficiently to ensure that extra-constitutional forces are not able to hamper the progress of ICT in any way.
APRIL 20, 2015