Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sayedee Indictment - tribunal history

This is the final of four posts relating to the 3 October charge-framing order by the International Crimes Tribunal which indicated Delwar Hossain Sayedee on 20 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The first post related to the charges; the second one related to legal issues; the third one concerned the numbers of people who died in 1971; and this one deals with the previous history of accountability for crimes committed in 1971 and the extent to which embarking on the first trial of an individual for international crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence is a 'remarkable' moment in Bangladesh's legal history, as stated by introductory section to the 3 October order.

There have of course been trials of Bangladeshis for alleged crimes immediately following the end of the 1971 war; however, as discussed below, many of the most senior alleged suspects left the newly created Bangladesh, and were not available for prosecution at that time. These men only returned after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib in 1975.

Collaborators Ordinance, 1971
In 1972, the new government enacted the Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunal) Ordinance 1972, which allowed for the prosecution of those alleged to have committed Penal Code offences of murder, rape etc, as well as for political collaboration with the Pakistan military. Reports suggest that, till October 31 1973, trials of 2,848 took place with 752 convictions.

This process of accountability reportedly lost credibility quite quickly, both nationally and internationally, on issues relating to the fairness of the process, as well as the difficulty in getting convictions based on the existing laws of evidence. On 30 November 1973, Sheikh Mujib gave a conditional general amnesty for everyone except for those alleged to have been involved in rape, arson, looting or murder. Whilst in principle violent crimes could continue to have been prosecuted this no longer happened.

Very relevant to the current process, is that many of the leading Bengalis, who supported Pakistan during the war, left Bangladesh in December 1971 after the Pakistan military was defeated and went into exile in Pakistan, UK, Saudia Arabia or a any number of other countries. They were therefore not available for prosecution under the collaborator's ordinance.

The International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973
There was also an 'attempt' by the new Bangladesh government to prosecute some Pakistani officers. Following the July 1972 Simla agreement, India repatriated 92,000 Pakistani prisoners of war and civilians back to Pakistan. However, 195 military officers, whom the Bangladesh government said that they wanted to prosecute, remained in Indian custody. In 1973 the Bangladesh government enacted the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973 in order to allow the prosecution of these officers.

However, Pakistan also detained 206 Bengalis whom they said they would prosecute for passing on secret information. No doubt due to this 'hostage taking', as well as pressure from countries who participated in the Islamic summit, and from China, the Bangladesh government allowed India to return the 195 officers.

(See this useful page for more information on attempts at accountability between 1971 to 1974:

1975 to 1990
Following Sheikh Mujib's assassination, many people who had supported Pakistan - including senior members of Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, some of whom are now accused of international crimes - returned to Bangladesh. The collaborators ordinance was shortly thereafter repealed. The constitutional ban on religious based politics, put in place under Mujib's government, was removed, and Jamaat began to flourish again as a party

In the period 1976 to 1990, when there was no legitimate political democracy and instead a series of primarily military regimes, the demands for accountability for crimes alleged to have been committed by the returnees was very muted.

Fall of Ershard: Civil society movement for trials
With the fall of General Ershad in 1990, after 8 years in power, and the return to political democracy (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won the elections in 1991) the civil society demands for accountability of those who had returned to Bangladesh since the assassination of Mujib started afresh. The new pressure from civil society may have been triggered in part by the success of Jamaat-e-Islami in the elections, who managed to win 18 seats. From this time, much of the rhetoric of 1971 war crimes campaigners has been not only in favour of trials for the purpose of accountability but also as a means to undermine politically the Jamaat-e-Islami.

In this period, the Ekatturer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee was formed, under the leadership of the highly respected Jehanara Imam (whose son died in the war) and a People's Commission, linked to this committee, held a 'trial' of Gholam Azam, the leader of the Jamaat-e-islami in 1971, to try and force the government's hand to conduct a proper trial under the 1973 Act. The BNP government was antagonistic to the people's tribunal and many of the organisers were in fact arrested.

When the Awami league came to power in 1996, many campaigners for 1971 accountability hoped that the new government - who when in opposition had supported the peoples commission - would organise proper war crimes trials relating to the 1971 war. Instead, however the Awami League government decided to focus instead on the trials of the killers of the prime-minister's father. Many campaigners were bitterly disappointed by this decision.

With the election in 2000 of a coalition between the BNP/Jamaat, there was no chance of trials taking place - with a number of the alleged perpetrators in fact becoming ministers during this period (Motiur Rahman Nizami, one of the men currently detained, was for example industries minister).

Between 2006 and 2008 a military backed caretaker government was in power, and during thus period, a new organisation, the Sector Commanders Forum was established by the surviving Sector Commanders of the 1971 War, and strongly backed the idea of tribunals.

This gave great impetus to the demands of civil society for trials and the Awami League made war crimes trials a part of their manifesto for the 2009 elections which they went onto win. The government set up the current tribunal in March 2010.

And therefore ...
I have set this out at some length in order to explain that those who have demanded that the most senior Bangladeshi collaborators should be held to account for their alleged offences in 1971 have had to wait a very long time for trials to take place.

It is of course true that the main alleged perpetrators, the Pakistani officers, are not being put on trial: but there is now an attempt to put on trial individuals who were not available in Bangladesh for prosecution during the Sheikh Mujib government, but are alleged to have taken senior positions in assisting the Pakistan military in committing some atrocities.

One has to keep this history in mind, as it in part explains the tone that many take in relation to these trials. Having waiting for such a long time, people don't want to allow the trials to 'fail' - with failure meaning for many people, 'acquittal'. Any negative comments about the tribunal is seen by such people as a direct attack on the tribunal itself and everything they have fought for to get this trial process to happen rather than an opportunity to make improvements and changes.

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