The Long Road to Justice in Bangladesh
On Dec. 15, 1971, a microbus covered in mud came to our home in war-torn Bangladesh and took my father away. Dr. Abdul Alim Choudhury was one of my country's top eye specialists -- a highly respected, much loved man. Three days later, we found his battered, bullet-ridden body in a ditch alongside hundreds of other leading intellectuals. His only crime was that he loved his country and wanted independence for its people.
I was 2 years old back then. Not a single day has passed that my mother, my sister, and I have not asked for justice for this heinous crime. Now, finally, we are beginning to see progress thanks to the trials and convictions of war criminals by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Dhaka. The trials are at long last revealing the tragic truth about the genocide, including the wholesale murder of intellectuals like my father, which occurred during Bangladesh's War of Independence from Pakistan 44 years ago.
The pro-liberation party called the Awami League heeded the popular demand for a war-crimes tribunal in 2009. The League's promise to establish the tribunal was an important reason it won election by an overwhelming majority.
But even since the formation of the tribunal, the path to justice has not been easy. There is no witness protection law in Bangladesh, and supporters of the perpetrators are powerful, wealthy and well connected. Witnesses have been harassed and threatened. A few have been killed. Yet these patriotic people, who had already paid such high price for the country, moved valiantly forward with their eyewitness accounts.
Organized political extremist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami have been doing their best to help the criminals with a seemingly endless supply of funds from the Middle Eastern countries and Western lobbyists. It seems sometimes that Bangladesh is fighting a lonely battle to bring justice to its war heroes.
The government of Bangladesh is regularly attacked by outside organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International over the fairness of the tribunal process. Resistance also comes from inside Bangladesh from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami. Both BNP and Jamaat are wealthy and proactive. They have hired Western lobbyists to argue against the trials.
What hurts me a lot as a member of a victim's family is that, in the path to realizing justice, we are so frequently made to feel like criminals ourselves. Why conduct trials at all, critics ask. Why now? What is their purpose after so long? Aren't backers of the tribunals engaged in a political vendetta?
Let me clarify my stand as the daughter of a victim of the war. I want a trial because father was taken from his home and killed. I want justice. Just because the state failed to give me justice for more than 40 years, does not mean the crime did not happen. Rather, the fact that nothing was done until recently is itself a terrible injustice.
Propagandists for the criminals have asserted that the trials haven't been free and fair. This is untrue. My mother and sister were witnesses in two cases. I have seen the trial process from inside. Trials are held in an open court, and anyone can observe the proceedings. Reporters take note of everything. The accused have more rights than in other courts of its kind.
The process has also proven to be merciful. Those convicted have a right to appeal. One convicted criminal, Gulam Azam, got clemency from his death sentence and was allowed to die a natural death in prison because of his advanced age.
Critics have also complained about the application of the death penalty. The death penalty is legal in Bangladesh, as it is in many other countries, including a majority of states in the United States. If you kill one person in Bangladesh, you can receive a death sentence. Yet for orchestrating the murder of 3 million people, we cannot apply the death penalty? What sort of a silly demand is that? Horrific crimes were committed. As the daughter of a martyr, I would ask for even a greater punishment for these criminals, if one existed.
International carping has hurt the families torn apart by Bangladesh's genocide. We do not appreciate the interference. Yet Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to complain. They were silent when the Pakistanis were killing 3 million in Bangladesh in 1971. How many more needed to die for recognition to come?
Bangladesh is trying to bring justice its people. I hope the rest of the world sees the light of truth and does not fall prey to lobbyists and propaganda machines. We, the family members of the victims of the war, will continue to demand justice until the last war criminal is punished.