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         Volume 11 |Issue 16 | April 20, 2012 |


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Defender of Justice

Noted human rights activist, writer, filmmaker and producer of Channel -4's “War
Crimes File”, Gita Sahgal tells the Star about the making of the documentary

Tamanna Khan

The untamed black and white curly hair in a way represents Gita Sahgal – an activist who does not bow down to pressure or even hesitate to question the controversial affiliation of an organisation that apparently advocates human rights. In the international arena, Sahgal perhaps is known for her role as head of Amnesty International's Gender Unit from 2003 until she was suspended in 2010 for publicly criticising Amnesty's high profile association with Moazzem Begg. Sahgal had claimed that Begg, director of a campaign group, Cageprisoners, and a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, had ties with extremist Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir and al-Quaeda.

For Bangladesh, however, Sahgal is relevant for a different reason. She was the producer and one of the main researchers of the groundbreaking documentary “War Crimes File,” which was screened on British television in 1995 by Channel 4. The “War Crimes File” investigates the crimes committed by three British nationals of Bangladeshi origin during Bangladesh's Liberation War of 1971.

Gita Sahgal, Photo: Palash Khan

Sahgal's work as a freelance documentary filmmaker and human rights activist had brought her to Bangladesh a number of times. Sahgal was involved in many issues connected to Bangladesh from London. She helped British Bangladeshis raise their voices during the democratic movement to overthrow the autocratic regime of General Ershad in the late 1980s.

Although during her earlier visits she was mainly interested in women's issues and rights, Sahgal was not unfamiliar with Bangladesh's history and the War of Liberation. “I was about 14 when the war happened. I think, any Indian of that generation, who was old enough to read papers and hear the discussions on it, would be deeply affected by that,” reminisces Sahgal, an Indian by birth and currently living in the UK. She remembers the newspaper article on genocide, rape and how women were found locked up in Pakistani army camps robbed off their modesty. Much later during her work for Amnesty International in 2004, Sahgal was first to point out how rape and sexual abuse are used as a deliberate military strategy.

The idea for the documentary, however, did not materialise until Sahgal met David Bergman, who later directed “War Crimes File”. She came to know him while working on the Bhopal disaster of India in the mid 80s and has remained friends ever since. “There were rumours that there were razakars living in London,” she begins, retracing the making of the documentary.

At that time, neither the International Crimes Tribunal nor any of the key cases on universal jurisdiction had taken place. “Long before those cases, we were thinking that there were laws that could be used in Britain to try people for war crimes. So, that was the idea for the film. It was not only about a war that happened long ago or the atrocities during the course of that war, but it was tied to British life, to modern Britain.” She explains that since the alleged razakars were living in Britain, the British government could investigate the allegations of war crimes against them and then try them in Britain under the British laws on war crimes.

She says that when they began their research on the issue, they did not know much about the three persons – Chowdhury Moinuddin, who was the Al-Badr commander, Abu Sayeed and Lutfor Rahman, peace committee members from Sylhet district. “We did not know anything about their political profile and we had no political motivation in doing the work we did,” she states. “When we first started, all we had were rumours. In order to pin down the rumours and make them into facts, a lot of digging had to be done. Mostly, it was David who did that,” she remembers, “We had no money. He was given a desk in a film company but a lot of work was unpaid. Eventually, when we found some information, we got some funding from Channel 4. Then we were able to come to Bangladesh and do a much more thorough investigation.”

Sahgal informs that while working on the issue they had investigated many more people but at the end they decided to make the film only on the three alleged perpetrators. “We took instances that we thought were strong. We traced them back to the villages and areas that they came from, talked to people who had known them in their youth. We had to confirm their identities. In the end we had to put the allegation to them as well, because you have to put the allegations to the person you are investigating,” she shares.

Even in the 90s, when Sahgal and Bergman were investigating the war crimes of Bangladesh, the time factor posed challenges. The war crimes were a dead issue then and people's memories of the war were fading. Besides, Jamaat-e-Islami, the political party that opposed the Liberation War of Bangladesh, had by then used its power to silence people, she states. As a result, Sahgal's team had to continuously cross-check and confirm the information gathered. They looked for direct witnesses, not second or third-hand accounts. Sahgal believes the work was made more difficult by the BNP government, which had to take Jamaat’s support in the parliament to get to power. She adds, “We were very nervous when we were filming.”

She recounts one instance when they were filming a doctor who had been beaten up during the war because he was an Awami League supporter. “He and a number of others talked about fatwas that were issued in that area, which they said were the signals for the killing to start. We had evidence of the fatwa,” she says, adding how by the time the interview was finished a large hostile crowd had gathered outside the doctor's chamber and the film crew literally had to escape from the scene.

However, hostility did not end there. It was only after the “War Crimes File” was broadcasted that Sahgal and her team realised the influence of the people they had investigated. “They have done really well [in Britain] because they had the patronage of the British government, particularly the Labour party,” she claims. In Britain, the film won the Royal Television Society award and was well regarded as investigative journalism. However, some people threatened to sue Channel 4 and there were campaigns to suppress the film so that it was not kept in libraries and archives, informs Sahgal. Yet “War Crimes File” was widely distributed in Bangladesh.

To campaigners seeking justice for the atrocities committed by collaborators of the Pakistani Army in 1971, the documentary is a potential source of evidence. However, Sahgal feels that investigators should use first hand accounts of eye-witnesses who are still alive, rather than directly using the interviews taken during the film.

Referring to the tactics used by the defence of the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh, she says, “The defence has invested huge amounts of money into having very good lawyers, who are basically acting as lobbyists.” Sahgal points out how the defence is using the government's assertion of an international war crimes tribunal, using national laws that meet international standards, for their argument.

“The defence is trying to create the argument that it had to be an international tribunal, knowing that there is no political appetite for it in the world now,” she argues, explaining that International court only applies under circumstances where the judicial system of a country is not able or not willing to hold trial. “Basically, the defence is creating a kind of smokes screen, saying we are going to have trial but then creating impossible conditions for the trial to be held. This has been an argument that has been very successful in their lobbying in America, Europe and Britain.” She opines that while it is legitimate to hold a national process under a national law, it is also important to keep the national process fair.

Sahgal, currently the executive director of the Centre for Secular Space, is now working towards establishing secularism as a human rights issue. She opines that it is very important to separate religion from state. Sahgal, who works with Bangladeshi communities in Britain, informs how the Hindus and progressive Muslims in these communities were disappointed that Bangladesh did not go back to its original constitution, and rather retained Islam as a state religion. However such a political decision does not mute Sahgal. With a hearty smile, she continues her fight for a just and secular world.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2012