Dhaka steels itself to bring war butchers to justice

On the fourth floor of a nondescript pale-blue government building in Old Dhaka, the most important trial in the short history of the former East Pakistan is underway.

Clerks are collating defence and prosecution statements relating to the crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of secession from Pakistan – a conflict that appears to have killed anywhere between 300,000 and three million people. The latter figure is the one claimed by the government of Bangladesh in the trials being held by the International Crimes Tribunal which has brought charges against seven key figures it says were involved in the killings.

The key government figure in the trial is Abdul Hannan Khan, the chief investigator for the tribunal which was set up by the Bangladeshi government in March 2010 to ‘try and punish any individual or group of individuals, or any member of any armed, defence or auxiliary forces, irrespective of his nationality’ who committed crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes, among other things, in the 1971 war which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.

Khan, a former police inspector general, takes his role with methodical care and, according to all accounts, seems uninterested in politics.

On November 20 last year, the first of the seven accused, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), an Islamist party opposed to Bangladesh’s independence, was charged with 11 specific crimes. He has since been joined on the charge sheet by virtually the entire Jamaat leadership, including its former chief, the 90-year old Ghulam Azam, and two prominent members of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Khan also set his sights on ten other suspected collaborators, including members of the Jamaat and two of the BNP. There is also Ashrafuzzaman Khan, an American, and Moinuddin Chowdhury, a British citizen, both alleged leaders of the pro-army paramilitary body called Al Badr, which allegedly massacred Bengali intellectuals in December 1971. Khan lives in New York and Chowdhury is said to be in London.

In its introduction to the case, the Tribunal wrote that the hearings had a ‘considerable significance for the people of Bangladesh as well as for the victims of international crimes committed in Bangladesh during the liberation struggle, particularly between March 25 and December 16 1971… In the war of liberation that ensued, all people of East Pakistan wholeheartedly supported and participated in the call to free Bangladesh but a small number of Bangalees, Biharis and other Pakistanis, as well as members of a number of different religion-based political parties, joined and/or collaborated with the Pakistan military to actively oppose the creation of independent Bangladesh…

‘As a result three million (thirty lakhs) of people were killed and more than 200,000 (two lakhs) of women were raped and about 10 million (one crore) of people were deported to India as refugees and millions of others were internally displaced. It also saw unprecedented destruction of properties all over Bangladesh…to prosecute their policy of occupation and repression and in order to crush the aspiration of the freedom-loving people of an independent Bangladesh, the Pakistan government and the military set up a number of auxiliary forces such as the Razakers, the Al badr, the Al shams.’

These groups were detailed to identify and eliminate those perceived to be in sympathy with the liberation of Bangladesh, especially the Hindus and members of political parties belonging to the Awami League.

The number of victims is contested not least because the figure of 3 million was first given prominence by the Russian newspaper Pravda and subsequently picked up by the first ruler of independent Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

An extensive investigation carried out Dr M A Hasan, convenor of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, reports a considerably lower figure with the true total being closer to 1.2 million. Dr Hasan said he had identified 946 killing fields or mass graves, while research suggested that for every grave located there were about four others which had been built upon or were not accessible, making a total of about 5,000 graves. Supposing some 100 bodies in each, that would bring a total of about 500,000. But in reality that figure is only about 30 per cent of the overall total of victims since so many bodies were left unburied or were swept away, having been disposed of in rivers. Dr Hasan concludes the total of deaths may be as high as 1.8 million.

The case against Jamaat leader Sayeedi, who has been indicted on 20 detailed counts including murder, rape, arson and looting, has been under way this summer but the accused has been recovering from an angiogram and had three stents inserted in the arteries around his heart. The Jamaat leader had a heart attack while returning from his eldest son’s funeral on June 14 and has not been able to attend court since.

When the charges against him were originally read out in court, Sayeedi responded by saying: ‘I think what I have been facing is the greatest lie of this century and I have been subjected to the most atrocious political vendetta…I was never involved in such kinds of activities. I was never a Razaker, never a collaborator with the Pakistan army…I did not even meet them or see them even for a day…I am a very non-violent human being. Those people who brought those allegations against me, Allah will take care of them…and they are going to be taken down by Allah.’

The prosecution has reportedly refused to entertain the appearance of several thousand witnesses for the defence, saying that such a large number were to be deployed as a means of slowing down the trial.

The speed of the process does not seem to be a problem, however, because Bangladesh law minister Shafique Ahmed said that the trials of those currently before the Tribunal for crimes against humanity would be completed within this year if the current speed of the proceedings in maintained.

He said the Tribunal would consider the defence list of witnesses but ‘I don’t feel that the tribunal will accept such a list if it is submitted with a view to making delay in their proceedings’.