(Image courtesy of Demotix.com)
Until 1971, Bangladesh formed the eastern part of Pakistan, but in that year the country finally gained its independence through a bloody war that cost the lives of over 3 million people. Fast forward to 2013, amid tight security, on February 5, an International War Crimes Tribunal of three judges delivered a judgment against 64-year-old Abdul Quader Mollah, who in 1971 was the chief of the students’ wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic party that sided with Pakistan during the war and opposed Bangladeshi independence. He was convicted of war crimes, including murder, and was sentenced to life in prison. He is the first person to be tried and convicted of crimes stemming from the war.
Upon hearing of the verdict, two separate protests on both sides of the issue broke out. One occurred in Shahbagh Square in the capital city of Dhaka. Here, protestors formed a sit in complaining that the sentence was too lenient and that war criminals should receive the death penalty.
The other protest occurred 280 miles away in the tourist city of Cox’s Bazar when Jamaat-e-Islami activists clashed with police. At least 3 people were killed when hundreds of activists from Jamaat and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, left the city’s mosques following noon prayers and attacked police. They were demanding the release of their leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who also faces war crimes charges dating back more than four decades.
Meanwhile, demonstrators have vowed to continue protesting at Shahbagh and have asked the government to ban Jamaat-e-Islami.
Jamaat-e-Islami said its members would continue to protest as many of its leaders were behind bars facing charges of murder, arson, looting and rape stemming from the war for independence.
They said the war crimes trials, begun after more than 40 years of independence, were being carried out with “ill political motive.”
So far, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown no sign of backing down. He assures the trials will be completed at any cost.
The government, which promised in its election pledges in 2008 to complete the war crimes trials, set up the tribunals in 2010.
In your opinion, is it wrong for the government to bring up old wounds and charge people for crimes committed over forty years ago, or do the criminal actors deserve to be held accountable regardless of how much time has passed? Moreover, can these defendants even receive a fair trial after forty years? Is it even possible to find reliable witnesses this long after the fact? Finally, if protests continue to erupt, and innocent people continue to lose their lives, at what point does the cost become too great to continue the prosecutions?
In my opinion, what Bangladesh has done in forming a criminal tribunal is a step in the right direction. Impunity has run rampant throughout the history of the world, and once the precedent was set at Nuremberg there has been an increased desire around the world to hold war criminal accountable for their actions.
I think that to impose a statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions would be ludicrous; it would seriously undermine societal retribution and would result in a belief that impunity is possible so long as one effectively hides for some years. This formulation is unacceptable.
To the question of whether the risk of riots outweighs the utility of justice, I quote the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I agree with him, and I emphasize the long-term benefit of bringing criminals to justice. Whether or not riots will persist in the short-term, there is an inherent goodness that results from criminal prosecutions which justifies the struggles inherent in their process. Therefore, in order to reduce impunity we must all recognize that there will be turmoil and strife.
To the question of fairness, I say that we must trust the justice system. The fact that evidence may be stale should be reflected in the verdicts. People are protesting the fact that war criminals receive less than the death penalty, yet such a ostensibly reduced sentence is most likely a reflection of the sufficiency of the evidence, not a lack of prosecutorial zeal.
I agree with Rocky that setting up a criminal tribunal system is a step in the right direction for a country that has been plagued by troubles for decades. One of the most important factors of a stable nation is an independent, strong judiciary. The system must be able to prosecute crimes regardless of the public pressure. I applaud the resilience of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her support of bringing justice to the war crimes victims.
To address Joe’s questions, a do not believe war criminals should be subject to a statute of limitations on their crimes. However, I do agree that the motives at play here do not seem entirely pure. These trials are most likely is for political gain; and to rid the country of any vestiage of Pakistani influence. Regardless, there still needs to be justice for the victims. It also is a testament to the judicial system of Bangladesh that a full trial could be conducted.
Finally, at some point the death toll from the protests may necessitate a move outside the country of these tribunals. Justice would still prevail, but not at the cost of citizens.