- - Monday, March 7, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal’s (ICT) is sometimes a target of criticism from outsiders. But these war crimes trials are overwhelmingly popular at home. Verdicts have been treated almost as national holidays, with patriotic songs, impromptu street parties and the handing out of sweets to children.

Bangladeshis reacted favorably earlier this month when the tribunal pronounced death sentences for war criminals Obaidul Haq Taher and Ataur Rahman Noni, who abducted, tortured and killed 15 people and looted some 450 houses during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Liberation from Pakistan.

Such positive reaction from the Bangladesh populace is typical.

After a death sentence against war criminal Mohammad Qamaruzzaman was carried out in April 2015, thousands of people celebrated in the streets of Dhaka and other cities for two days. Similar outpourings of support followed the hangings last November of war criminals Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury.

The public demonstrations were designed in part to encourage the International Crimes Tribunal to complete its work and convict other criminals who committed crimes against humanity during the 1971 war and genocide launched by Pakistan, which killed up to 3 million Bangladeshis.

A nationwide poll conducted last year by the Dhaka Tribune found that 79 percent of respondents want Bangladesh’s war crimes trials to continue. Even in Bangladesh’s Khulna Division — home to the strongest opposition to the current ruling party — 64 percent of respondents want the trials to go ahead, the poll said.

Indeed, a major reason Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a substantial victory in 2008 (16 percentage points more than her closest rival) was her promise to reinstitute the tribunal.

Why, then, the sharp divide between those inside Bangladesh and those on the outside when it comes to the International Crimes Tribunal?

Simply put, because outsiders can never fully understand what it was like to live through Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Liberation and the attendant genocide. They cannot comprehend what it’s like to be the son or daughter of a man who was tortured or killed and to watch the perpetrator escape justice for decades.

Bangladeshis have a deep thirst for justice. Rape and torture were common weapons of war. When it became clear to Pakistan that it was going to lose the war, Pakistan launched a grisly, systematic program to kill as many Bangladeshi intellectuals as possible — doctors, artists, teachers and writers.

But the perpetrators of the worst atrocities managed to elude justice for more than 40 years. A series of coups, assassinations and military takeovers actually cleared the way for some of the most vicious war criminals to join the Bangladesh government in leadership positions.

Shortly after Ms. Hasina’s election, she put an end to that. She reconstituted the war crimes tribunal that was actually launched in the 1970s by her father, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, but was abandoned by his political enemies after his 1975 assassination.

Ms. Hasina set up two International Crimes Tribunals structured after the Rome Statute, the gold standard for international criminal courts. The process, as a result, is open and transparent. Anyone can come to watch the trials. In addition, the Bangladesh ICT is the only war crimes tribunal in the world that offers defendants the ability to appeal their verdicts to a higher court, in this case Bangladesh’s Supreme Court. And indeed, the Supreme Court has, on appeal, changed death sentences rendered by the tribunal to life imprisonment.

In short, the International Crimes Tribunal is fair and just. Bangladeshis know this.

Outsiders have criticized the ICT because they say a disproportionate number of defendants belong to opposition political parties, mainly Jamaat-e-Islami. There are two problems with this objection: Members of other parties — including a former member of the current government’s Awami League — have also been tried by the tribunal.

Second, if war crimes evidence is discovered that incriminates Jamaat members, should they be spared a trial simply because they are members of an opposition party? Should justice be deferred or abandoned for the victims of the 1971 war and genocide — and their long-suffering family members — because the optics is bad? Besides, it’s natural for some Jamaat leaders to be in the dock; Jamaat opposed Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and collaborated with the Pakistani junta to try to prevent it.

The people of Bangladesh recognize an empty argument when they see it. They know firsthand what these war criminals did. They have seen up close how the tribunal has operated in transparency and credibility. They believe in this fight for justice. That’s why these trials are overwhelmingly popular in Bangladesh and why they will — and should — continue.

• Sajeeb Wazed is the chief information technology adviser to the government of Bangladesh and the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

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