Thursday, March 31, 2011

War crimes in Bangladesh

Answering for history

Bangladesh responds to criticism of its plans to try war criminals

BANGLADESH’S government had been hoping for swift justice when it set up a war-crimes tribunal in March. Its plan was to put dozens of people on trial for atrocities committed during the country’s secession from Pakistan nearly 40 years ago. Now, with nobody even formally charged, it is bowing to criticism that its vision of justice was flawed.

Some opposition politicians have accused the government of waging a vendetta. The government made clear early on that it would not try to prosecute Pakistanis who fought for West Pakistan against the separatists of East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was then known) in 1971. Hundreds of thousands of civilians—officials say as many as 3m—were killed in the nine-month conflict. Instead, it is targeting only Bangladeshi citizens accused of collaborating with the West Pakistanis. Some of the most prominent alleged collaborators happen to be members of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party and a partner in the main opposition alliance.

In August the tribunal detained five Jamaat-e-Islami leaders to prevent them from “hindering investigations” into war-crimes allegations against them. Their party supported West Pakistan’s army in 1971. On December 16th, police arrested a politician of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party on unrelated murder charges. He has also been accused of war crimes. Opposition supporters say the government is flouting justice.

On this point they have growing support. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group, says that “significant improvements” are needed in Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal Act of 1973, under the terms of which trials are to be held. Critics’ concerns include lax rules for the admissibility of evidence and inadequate appeal procedures.

There is little support for these arguments among ordinary Bangladeshis. In a country where trial standards are generally low, most people cannot see why alleged war criminals should be treated any better. Some say the rights of victims are being ignored. “The perpetrators are Bangladeshi, the victims are Bangladeshi, the crimes took place in Bangladesh, the trial will be in Bangladeshi courts under Bangladeshi law. We should set our own standards”, says Sharier Kabir, a leading campaigner for the trials. His cousin was one of many intellectuals who were abducted and killed in the war.

But the government appears to recognise that domestic support is not enough and that the trials will need more time. The law minister, Shafique Ahmed, has admitted that they might not be finished until 2014, when the government’s term ends. Having long fiercely rejected criticism of the tribunal act, officials are showing signs of softening. They have invited Stephen Rapp, an American diplomat looking into war-crimes issues, to visit Dhaka next month to assess the proceedings himself.

Sources say they have also asked the UN for assistance. This is risky for the government, which will be accused of vacillating or even caving in to foreign pressure. But justice needs to be seen to be fair. The Economist

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