DHAKA, Bangladesh – It is said that no good deed goes unpunished. Such is the case with the International Crimes Tribunals of Bangladesh. Every day it faces criticisms, both from national and international sources, despite the great care that has been taken to address the terrible crimes against humanity perpetrated four decades ago during Bangladesh's drive for independence.
Bangladesh emerged strong and independent from a blood bath in 1971. Those who played a major role in leading the massacre have been detained, prosecuted and are in the process of being punished for committing genocide and serious crimes against humanity under international law.
To date, nine people have been convicted. Others will be tried. Some 3 million people were killed, nearly a quarter million women were raped and more than 10 million people were forced to take refuge in India to escape brutal persecution during Bangladesh's nine-month war of liberation in 1971. It was not until recently that the perpetrators of war crimes could be brought to justice. The impunity they enjoyed in the meantime held back political stability, instigated a rise in militancy and undermined the nation's constitution.
The sad story of genocide begins in August, 1947, with the partition of British India into two states, one a secular state named India and the other the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The western zone was named West Pakistan and the eastern zone was named East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh. In 1952, Pakistani authorities attempted to impose Urdu as the state language of Pakistan, ignoring Bangla, the language of the majority population of Pakistan. The people of what was then East Pakistan started a movement to get Bangla recognized as a state language and eventually turned the movement into a drive for self-determination and independence.
In the election of 1970, the Awami League under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a landslide victory and became the majority party of Pakistan. But Pakistani military leaders dissolved the parliament rather than allow him to take over. On March 25, Pakistani soldiers and their collaborators commenced "Operation Search Light," which was designed to liquidate Bengali policemen, military officers, nationalist Bengali politicians, professionals, intellectuals, Hindus, students and other unarmed Bengali civilians.
A report titled "A Country Full of Corpses," published in SUMMA Magazine in 1971, reported: "The extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, the atomic crime of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massacre of Biafra, the napalm of Vietnam, all the great genocides of humanity have found a new equivalent: East Pakistan."
Bangladesh emerged from this tragedy, but its leaders chose not to be vindictive. The new government enacted the International Crimes Tribunal(s) Act 1973 and several subsequent laws to make sure that the trials of war criminals were handled in accordance with international standards. Political considerations and machinations delayed implementation of the tribunals until after the 2008 elections. At that point, the Awami League won a landslide victory on a platform of starting the tribunals as a way, finally, to prosecute those responsible for the genocide.
The tribunals adopted numerous practices that uphold all possible rights of the accused. For example, defendants must be fully informed about the charges and evidence against them. They must have a fair opportunity to defend themselves with the help of counsel. They are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. No one can be convicted unless the charges are proven "beyond reasonable doubt."
This universally-accepted standard was upheld when the tribunal found Abdul Quader Mollah not guilty in one of the six charges against him. In another case, Ghulam Azam was granted additional time to prepare his appeal.