Time to reconcile in Bangladesh?

DHAKA, 27 March 2013 (IRIN) - Recent civil unrest on the streets of Bangladesh has left experts questioning how to move past the country’s violent birth - without incurring more deaths.

“This is unprecedented violence of a shocking nature. The nation never experienced such violence in post-independent Bangladesh,” said Sabir Mustafa, a London-based political specialist covering Bangladeshi politics.

Violence broke out after supporters of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, took to the streets in early March after Delawar Hossain Sayede, a top party leader, was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity during the country’s liberation war with Pakistan in 1971.

The unrest has killed at least 98 people, including civilians, according to civil society estimates. Analysts say it is among the worst violence since independence, when some three million died, according to the government; independent estimates put the total at under half a million deaths.

With at least seven more verdicts, appeals and hangings due, calls are mounting to minimize violence while addressing the country’s violent past.

Whose truth?

The problem with any war crimes tribunal, according to Morten Bergsmo, director of the Brussels-based Centre for International Law Research and Policy, is that the tribunal, alone, cannot reconcile a divided country still grieving from massive human rights abuses.

“Criminal trials are never perfect... When all remedies are exhausted - national and international - we are left with a judicial truth, which may or may not reconcile society... War crimes justice hits a few defendants, while the crimes of the latter may have crushed thousands.”

To help find “historical truth” Bergsmo recommended making a state-run national archive on the independence war publicly available, and increasing its collection.

Bina D’Costa, an expert on security and human rights at the Australian National University, who is a Bangladeshi, said that while growing up in the capital, Dhaka, in the 1980s under the military dictatorship of Hussain Muhammad Ershad, she was exposed to conflicting versions of the war from schoolbooks. It was only when she left the country to pursue academic research that she learned, in detail, about the atrocities of the war.

“The revisionist history, particularly through the school curriculum, succeeded in strengthening some narratives and marginalizing others. As a result we see the generation is now divided over the official history of the war,” said Costa, who called for “a commission for healing that would uncover these various narratives of historical truth”.

“There is no credible and generally acceptable view of what exactly happened, why [it] happened, the extent of what happened, who did what, who were the criminals and who were the victims,” added Muhammad Ahmedullah, secretary of a London-based Bangladesh diaspora group.

Arriving at a common memory is one start to reconciliation; without that consensus, people cannot explain, justify or apologize for what they did or supported - at times under force or threat - he added.

But a collective understanding of the past is not what Mojibur Rahman - a 74-year-old who lost 17 family members, including his parents, in a Pakistani military assault - seeks. Rather, he wants convictions.

Altogether, he estimates more than 100 unarmed civilians died in the attack on his village in Barisal District.

“There is an absolute need to bring the war criminals [to justice]. I feel it is an outright necessity for us to get some sort of justice for our loss [and] that the trial of war criminals is impartial and free of politicization.”

War tribunal

The state-appointed International Crimes Tribunal, set up in 2010, has to date charged 12 people of committing war crimes.

Since the 1970s, of the 90 countries worldwide that have systematically addressed gross human rights violations within their borders, about 40 have set up truth commissions, while another 50 have used criminal proceedings, said Hun Joon, a transitional justice expert at Griffith University’s Asia Institute in Brisbane, Australia.

“All these processes, almost all the time, face some sort of reaction from either members of the previous regimes or their ardent supporters who try to thwart the process,” Joon wrote to IRIN.

Leaders from Jamaat-e-Islami, to which eight of the charged belong, and leaders of the Bangladesh National Party, to which two of the charged belong, have accused the trial of being politicized by the ruling Awami League to undermine opposition ahead of January 2014 general election.

The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) condemned the death sentence handed down to Jamaat’s leader, Sayede, calling for “justice, not vengeance”. ICJ has said the tribunal has had “serious procedure flaws at all stages”, including accusations of witness abduction and intimidation, as well as collusion between the government, prosecutors and judges, all of which the government denies.

“It is not a politicized trial. It is an open court full of transparency that manifests government commitment to democratic rule,” Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Shafique Ahmed told IRIN.

“The tribunal has been made fully independent of the executive. Its prosecution and investigative agencies are separate entities. The government has no scope for interfering with the tribunal,” he added.

Reconciliation still far off

Following violent street protests, the police have adopted a zero-tolerance policy, opening fire on protesters and killing indiscriminately, according to Odhikar, a local human rights NGO. Local media have reported between 67 and 185 deaths, including eight police.

Country analyst Mustafa said that while politics in Bangladesh has always had a violent streak, “never before have protesters targeted police forces and local administration infrastructure... This raised a major concern about internal security and the government’s ability to deliver services.”

Bergsmo, the legal researcher, called for “restraint and prudence both on the part of those who fear and those who favour the war crimes process” as the trials continue.

Bergsmo also recommended clemency for the convicted: “The fact that more than 40 years have transpired and that Bangladesh remains a largely divided society invites clemency in the interest of reconciliation and unity.”

But for Ali Riaz, the chair of politics at the US-based Illinois State University, reconciliation is “irrelevant” if perpetrators of the 1971 violence have not admitted guilt.

“In Bangladesh the ‘truth’ was never addressed. Never ever [was] there an admission from the part of the perpetrators that they, as a collective entity and as individuals, have committed crimes against a nation, against humanity,” Riaz told IRIN. “Until such [an] admission is made, the question of reconciliation remains irrelevant.”

Minister Ahmed confirmed the government is not considering any plan for reconciliation while criminal proceedings are ongoing.