Don’t look now, but a populous Muslim country in the Indian subcontinent is simmering with tension between its Islamist parties and its ruling civilian government. No, I’m not talking about Pakistan. I’m talking about Bangladesh, which has carried out a little-noticed effort over the last few weeks to prosecute major Islamist figures for war crimes that took place more than forty years ago.
Bangladesh has seen intense and widespread violence
over the last month and a half, following the convictions of three prominent leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI)
for atrocities committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. JeI---an Islamist party that is part of an opposition coalition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party---has retaliated harshly. There have been violent clashes across the country between JeI supporters and those celebrating the tribunal’s verdicts. Homes have been looted, Hindu temples have been desecrated, and, last Thursday, an uprising shut down the capital city, Dhaka. JeI’s student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, has also been hard at work
holding protests and detonating bombs. According to Agence France Presse
, the current death toll stands at eighty five, with hundreds injured. Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch
and Amnesty International
, have decried the unrest and have warned that the situation “could dissolve into uncontrolled violence."
Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan, though it is not territorially contiguous with the rest of it. Known then as East Pakistan, it is ethically and culturally different from Pakistan proper, and the union between ultimately collapsed. Bangladesh finally seceded in a bloody war of separation, in which India military intervened to support the resistance and the United States gave financial and military support to Pakistan. Estimates
of the casualties range from 500,000 to three million, with close to 200,000 women raped, and upwards of eight million people displaced---making the war one of the most violent of the 20th century.
At the time, JeI sided with the Pakistani army, and according to
Bangladeshi journalist Shahidul Alam, the organization “informed on, hunted out, and participated in the rape, killing, and torture of ordinary citizens.” For decades, these crimes went pardoned or unprosecuted, Alam says, because “realpolitik in a young nation surrounded by powerful neighbors inevitably led to compromises. . . [and] the quest for justice was derailed.” That finally changed in 2010 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party established the International Crimes Tribunal to investigate war crimes that occurred during the conflict. The tribunal handed down three verdicts this year:
- On January 21, Abul Kalam Azad, a former member of JeI and a prominent Islamic cleric, was found guilty of eight charges of crimes against humanity, including the murder and rape of Hindus. He was tried in absentia and was sentenced to death; he is believed to be hiding in Pakistan (BBC, AP, The Daily Star).
- On February 5, the assistant secretary general of JeI, Abdul Qader Molla, was sentenced to life in prison for five of six counts of crimes against humanity. Charges against him include playing a role in the mass killing of 381 civilians, rape, torture and arson (AP, Al Jazeera).
- On February 28, a third Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, the current president of JeI and a former politician, was also sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, including mass murder, rape, and arson (BBC, AP). According to a press release from the Hindu American Foundation, Sayeedi “reportedly led a pro-Pakistani militia in abducting and raping three Hindu sisters over a three day period, forcibly converting at least 100 Hindus to Islam, burning down 25 houses in a Hindu village, and murdering two civilians.”
Jamaat-e-Islami has had a tumultuous history in Bangladeshi politics; the party was banned shortly after the 1971 war and then reinstated a few years later after a series of military coups. Its political popularity has been on the decline for the last several years, but it remains a powerful force in the cultural mainstream---and as the last few weeks have shown, capable of creating real problems. Although the trials have received some criticism from international observers as less than fair and the recent domestic unrest and instability are cause for great concern, it is no small thing that after forty years, the perpetrators of heinous war crimes are finally facing justice. For ordinary Bangladeshis, whose day-to-day lives are beset by corruption, nepotism, and one government failure after another, that’s a significant positive development.