Monday, June 8, 2009

Allowing the ghosts of 1971 peace?

A Daily Star article today reported Law Minister Shafique Ahmed’s reaction to the Pakistani Government’s rumblings over a planned trial of suspected 1971 war criminals.

As the minister points out, the Bangladeshi government is only going to be trying “Bangladeshi citizens who had committed offences against humanity in collaboration with Pakistani occupation forces.” Pakistan, it would seem, has no chicken on the chopping block.

Or do they?

Everyone should know the story of how the al-Badr, al-Shams, and Razakar brigades actively supported the (then) West Pakistani army in killing millions of Bengalis during the 1971 Liberation War. Furthermore, it’s no secret that many of the leaders of these brigades went on to found a host of Islamist political parties and movements. The leaders of these collaborator organizations deserve to be put on trial for their crimes, no matter what their contribution to society or politics has been since then.

These trials will probably expose the Pakistani government (President Yahya Khan)’s approval and support for these atrocities. However as the minister pointed out, Pakistan is not on trial.

Three decades is far too long to have waited for reconciliation and justice, but putting off these trials for the sake of political expediency is easy when there are so many more pressing problems. Moreover, the very concept of these trials has been a vicious political and social debate within the Bangladeshi polity.

These reasons notwithstanding, Bangladesh should try these suspected war criminals. Can you imagine what the world would be like if Augustin Bizimungu or Hermann Goring were allowed to roam free and found a political party?

The International Community has a role to play here. The Community must support these trials through noninterference; however, they must also encourage the process to be as reconciliatory and transparent as possible. More importantly, the Bangladeshi government must ensure that guilt is assigned independent of political considerations and after suitable evidence and personal accounts disprove the suspects’ innocence. Finally, the Community should put pressure on Pakistan to not only respect Bangladesh’s right to hold these trials but to also supply evidence to the prosecution or defense as necessary.

The International Community needs to realize that these trials are much more than seeking justice and safeguarding human rights.which is reason enough to have them. These trials will also represent Bangladesh’s commitment to its identity as a secular state and a repudiation of militant and political Islamism in both the past, present, and future.

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