On the Need for Closure
ZIAUDDIN M. CHOUDHURY counters the arguments commonly made
by 'the enemy within' against holding a war crimes trial.
Photo: MUMIT M
When the war crime trials in Bangladesh became a media focus and a subject of intense public debate once again during the elections last year, we heard several questions. Should this be a priority for a poverty-stricken country that has other daunting tasks before it to feed and rear its millions? How would the government go about the trial when the real criminals from the occupying Pakistani forces were let go decades before? How do you go about rescinding an amnesty that set free those accused of collaboration for war crimes years ago? Would this be fair to resuscitate a War Trials Act when the majority of those accused of the crimes are long gone or are in a safe haven? Is the demand for war crimes trial now a highly orchestrated act to settle old political vendetta?
A commentator once remarked that these questions were neither new, nor the thoughts original. The population of every country transitioning out of war and with experience of mass atrocities comprises, roughly speaking, two camps -- those who want justice, and those who want to let bygones be bygones. To this, however, I will add a third camp. This is the camp of the quislings who had sabotaged our war of independence from within, who had never believed in Bengali nationhood, and had never come to grips with our new identity separate from an ideology that they continue to be beholden to. In fact it is this third camp -- the neo fifth columnists in our country -- who have the most to gain if the trials for war crime are never to be held. These are the same people who denigrate our war of liberation and the sacrifices of millions by labeling it as a "civil war", a war between brothers that we should leave behind us and forge ahead. To them the millions who lost their lives, the millions who lost property, and countless women who were raped, are nothing but unfortunate victims of a civil war -- mere collateral damages.
Let us a for a moment ignore the divisions on the war crime issue, and focus on what led to the resurgence of the genocide deniers and the causes of our collective national amnesia of the war atrocities. This did not come overnight. It came through gradual rehabilitation of the quislings -- both economic and political -- by the same elements who had been opposed to our birth, and machination of the political process to reestablish a political ideology that we fought against.
We fought a war to rid ourselves of an oppressive regime. A regime led by a force that never recognised us for what we are, denigrated our language and culture, demeaned our values and wanted to permanently enslave us to an ideology that the majority among us could not relate to. Therefore we fought this war; a war seeking liberation from a bigoted political philosophy that was grounded on religious intolerance, communal and ethnic divisions and hypocrisy.
The values of our liberation war were secularism, democracy and religious freedom. To our delight and to the applause of an admiring world the leaders of our war of liberation and the father of our nation enshrined these values in our Constitution. But in less than four years of our independence, these values were thrown into the dustbin when the country would catapult back to military dictatorship and authoritarian rule.
The first process started with the repeal of the Collaborators Act in December 1975 by the new military regime that had toppled the democratically elected government earlier that year. The amnesty declared by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in November 1973 had pardoned those who had no specific charges of war crimes against them, leaving in jail for trial those accused of murder and rape. The repeal of the Act in 1975 would release some 11,000 people from jail who were facing these charges. But the real rehabilitation of the enemies of our liberation would come later, when they would be given a political platform and invited with open arms to join it.
The saga of events that led to the political resurgence of the nihilist forces would begin with an amendment of the Constitution that allowed them to compete again in the political arena. This would be followed by induction of personages who worked shoulder to shoulder with war criminals into the political party formed under patronage of the new leadership. The tables would turn, and with aid and abetting from the top, the fugitives would become pursuers, the hunted become the hunter -- all in less than four years of our independence.
This sad and unforgiving turn of events not only derailed our efforts to hold the perpetrators of the heinous crimes accountable for their misdeeds, but it also has deprived our succeeding generations of their rightful claim to see justice served, and the martyrs of their country's freedom honoured. Collusion of a succession of dictatorships and their political cohorts that were imbued with the ideology of our former rulers and anti-liberation sentiments would ensure that the cry of war crimes trial did not reverberate across the country. The enemy within us that made possible the war atrocities would ensconce themselves securely with the powers that be, and let the cry for justice die in the wilderness.
The attempt of the Bangladesh government for trial of war crimes has come after 39 long years. A whole new generation has grown in this interregnum without knowing the sad saga of unmet justice for the millions who had perished in a nine-month war that was actively aided from inside by an enemy within us. They do not know these faceless people because they blended with the rest of us before the blood of the martyrs had even dried.
Even now the detractors of the war crimes trial are at their usual game, calling it a politically motivated act -- a "hate campaign against some individuals". It is sad to watch and hear that in an ethnically homogeneous society there would be sections that would question genocide of their own people by the occupying forces and their home-based allies. The people who perished and suffered from these heinous acts were not mere collaterals of a "civil war". It was not a civil war; it was a war of liberation. The people who fought against it perpetrated war crimes, and those who supported or collaborated with the war criminals participated in a common plan and conspiracy to accomplish these crimes. Their crimes not only comprise war atrocities, but also atrocities against minorities and women and killing of intellectuals.
It is true that a majority of the perpetrators of war crimes and their collaborators are no longer on the scene. Many have departed this world and others could be safe in their country of abode. But we owe it to our posterity and the world at large to show that crimes against humanity are not forgiven or forgotten. We need to demonstrate that people who had participated in these crimes are brought to justice to prevent recurrence of such dastardly acts in the future. This is not revenge or a vendetta against any individual or a group of people. This is bringing to closure a grievance of millions affected by the crimes, and restoring the faith of our next generation in justice. We may not be able to hold to account all who were responsible for the crimes; but the trial of even a few principals associated with these hateful acts will bring solace to the survivors of the fallen millions.
While we prepare for this long-awaited trial, we have also to remember that the efforts and resources to this endeavour lead to productive and long-lasting results. We have to be careful that both the investigative process and the trial are carried out in a transparent manner. Experts on trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity agree that a major factor of success or failure of a tribunal is the quality of evidence placed before the court. The court will not be convinced by hearsay or secondary evidence. Our prosecutors need to be careful on these accounts. They would also need to focus on crimes that have been committed and not necessarily on the reputations of the potential suspects, or else the validity and effectiveness of the trial may be undermined.
There is a widespread desire and hope that the culprits of 1971 atrocities will be brought to justice. Few of these people may survive now, but the crimes they and their associates committed four decades ago still rend the hearts of millions of the survivors. Despite the efforts of the enemy within us to undermine the process, I genuinely hope that we can now bring that black chapter of our history to a close.
Ziauddin Choudhury works for an international organisation in USA. He is the author of Assassination of Ziaur Rahman and Aftermath -- a University Press Limited publication.