The wounds of ’71 – Bangladesh’s past catches up with it

Sky Holmes 8 March 2013

At least 30 people were killed and around 300 injured across 13 districts of Bangladesh last Thursday. The violence followed the third controversial tribunal ruling on war crimes committed during the nine-month civil war of 1971, termed the Independence War. The long-awaited verdict ruled that Delwar Hossain Sayedee, Vice President of Jamaat-e-Islami, would be hung. Jamaat-e-Islami is a socially conservative and Islamist political party defined by its objective of establishing an Islamic state governed by Sharia law.

An aggressive agitator-cum-preacher of Jihadist values, Sayedee was convicted on two counts of abetting murder (in which one of the victims was Hindu). He was also convicted of setting alight 25 houses in a Hindu village and leading a pro-Pakistani militia that abducted three Hindu sisters and raped them repeatedly over three days. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had set up the tribunal in 2010 to investigate alleged abuses during the 1971 war that claimed about three million lives and during which thousands of women were raped.

The latest re-emergence of violence has brought the death toll to 46 since the tribunal delivered its first verdict on January 21. This week clashes between police forces and Jamaat supporters led to shots being fired whilst two policemen were beaten to death. Police squads were attacked, with two more police officers killed after thousands of Islamists attacked a police station in Gaibandha in the north of Bangladesh.

The violence threatens a return to the greater Hindi-Islamist violence of 1971. Government sources say that Sayedee’s death sentence is necessary to heal the wounds of a war that killed three million people. Independent estimates suggest that the death toll was closer to 500,000.

The government is tainted by rumours of anti-Islamist exaggerations. National and international rights groups have suggested that the tribunal’s legal procedures fall short of international standards; these allegations have persisted since the first verdict in January which sentenced the TV preacher Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to death.

Sayedee’s lawyer has termed this latest verdict “a gross miscarriage of justice”. He added that Sayedee did not live in the town at the time when the crimes of which he has been convicted took place. That is irrelevant, however – one does not have to live in a town to perpetrate a crime there.

The fact that, under the newly amended war crimes law, the appeal process must be completed within 90 days now foresees a rapid legal battle as Sayedee would be hanged this year if the verdict against him is upheld.

Sky Holmes