Evidence, Not Politics, Driving Tribunal Justice in Bangladesh

By T.H. Ali

Genocide is defined as the systematic elimination of a national, racial, political or cultural group. Forty- three years ago, genocide happened in Bangladesh. In an effort to quash a mass movement for independence in its province of East Bengal, the Pakistani military junta and its local collaborators systematically murdered and raped women and children, and targeted intellectuals for torture and killing.

The suppression failed and Bangladesh achieved its liberation from Pakistan, but at an enormous cost. The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 resulted in as many as three million senseless deaths at the hands of Pakistani military and their local collaborators. The future of tens of millions of Bangladeshis was changed overnight as they fled to neighboring India as refugees.

Two of the alleged orchestrators of these horrific crimes, Motiur Rahman Nizami and Delwar Hossain Sayedee, have faced trial for their actions before a domestic war crimes tribunal in Dhaka that aims at providing justice to the victims, even if 43 years later. Evidence was presented that their actions more than four decades ago led directly to the deaths of thousands, and the dislocation of many more. The political affiliations of these two men with a former opposition party in Bangladesh called Jamat has been raised by their defenders as a reason they should not be tried. But time does not erase the actions they've been accused of, nor does it diminish their tragic impact. Trials for charges like these are necessary even if they are long delayed. When the crimes are as heinous as these, justice must be done.

Nizami, in particular, was identified during his trial as a leader and instigator of many of the killings that occurred in 1971. He was charged with 16 counts of war crimes including murder, rape, looting and the directing of a systematic massacre of Bengali intellectuals. These charges cover the killing of 70 people and the torching of 72 houses in December of 1971 at Brishalika village; the murder of 450 people in Demra and Baushia villages; and the killing of many more individuals in front of a Hindu temple at Kormocha village. Nizami was also accused during the trial of playing a vital role in establishing the so-called East Pakistan Central Peace Committee and Razakars force, which were used to oppress pro-liberation Bangladeshis. One such event was the Brishalikha massacre, which took place in December 1971. Witnesses put Nizami at the scene when Pakistani forces scorched homes in the village and murdered at least eight individuals. In another documented incident, Nazami directed the Razakars to establish a camp around a closed Madrasa in Boalmari in order to launch attacks against innocent individuals.

Sayedee was charged with similar crimes. On more than one occasion, he accompanied Pakistani troops as they murdered unarmed civilians, according to testimony at the tribunal. He was also alleged to have caused widespread destruction by ordering the arson of roadside buildings in more than a dozen villages. Sayedee was said to have targeted leaders of the freedom movement. Evidence was presented that Mahbubul Alam Howlader was tortured and his older brother murdered by Sayedee and his men. On another occasion, Razakars, under Sayedee's command, attacked the Hindus of Hoglabunia village. Evidence was presented that Sayedee abducted the three sisters of Gouranga Saha and detained them for three days during which they were repeatedly raped. For this, he was charged with rape and confinement.

Bangladesh's carefully balanced system of justice is weighing the evidence against the defendants' denials. Whatever the outcome, the trials were entirely necessary for the establishment of a record of the horrors that occurred in 1971. When crimes against humanity occur, the perpetrators must face justice, no matter how long it takes, no matter what political parties the perpetrators belong to. Nizami and Sayedee cannot be shielded from justice under the guise of a political party. They have faced the evidence and the judges will speak. No amount of political obfuscation can disguise the outcome.

T.H. Ali teaches South Asian history at the University of Houston-Main Campus in Texas.

(AP Photo)

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