Bangladesh: Punish war criminals, check law, order

"A serious decline in law and order would defeat the very purpose of the war crime trials".

Bangaldesh police 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bangaldesh police 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the ongoing war crime trials in Bangladesh 10 top leaders of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami and two leaders of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are being tried. The verdicts in three cases have come and the remaining ones are likely to come in next one month or so. While it is extremely necessary to punish the war criminals in Bangladesh to set the record of history in that country straight, it is equally important for the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government to keep a check on the law-and- order situation. A serious decline in law and order would defeat the very purpose of the war crime trials which are nearing completion.
It is believed that extremists elements arose in Bangladesh because they were not brought to book in the aftermath of the liberation war. Sheikh Muzib-ur-Rahman, father of the Bangladeshi nation under whose leadership the war of liberation was fought, himself gave amnesty to these war criminals. He thought this act of generosity would lead to all sections of Bangladeshi society coming together and marching forward. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Mujib was murdered on August 15, 1975.
The murder of Mujib brought about a very different trend in Bangladeshi politics.
Zia-ur-Rahman, who came to power some time later, started the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party and used Islam to legitimize his rule. The emphasis on Islam brought focus back on Islamist parties, most important of which was Jamaat-e-Islami. Zia rehabilitated leaders of this party, many of whom returned from Pakistan. Islamists leaders also got prominent positions in his administration.
This trend of emphasis on Islam continued during the regime of Gen. Ershad, who declared Islam the state religion of Bangladesh. Even after the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh in 1990, the Islamist forces represented by Jamaat-e-Islami only grew stronger. Jamaat had participated in the movement for restoration of democracy in Bangladesh along with other mainstream political parties.
Jamaat subsequently offered support to the BNP-led government. Through these smart moves Jamaat tried to gain acceptability in the political set-up of Bangladesh.
Soon, however, Jamaat started showing its true colors as the source of all other extremist and terrorist groups in Bangladesh. During the four- party coalition regime, Jamaat was part of the government, and terror groups supported by Jamaat launched attacks on all secular political groups in Bangladesh. An attack was launched on Sheikh Hasina herself in August 2004, in which she nearly lost her life.
The civil society in Bangladesh, especially the freedom-fighters (mukitjodhas), have realized that if Bangladeshi politics are to remain moderate, these extremist elements have to be weeded out. It was also realized that these forces have grown stronger because they did not get their due punishment for the war crimes they committed during the liberation war.
Through sustained effort they brought this issue onto the national agenda in the run-up to the 2008 elections.
Seeing the popular sentiment in favor of prosecution of war criminals, the main Bangladeshi political party, Awami League, known for its pro-liberation role, was encouraged to make this issue its own.
However, the actual prosecution of war criminals is fraught with danger. The Jamaat has increased its influence in Bangladesh over time. Today it commands significant material and human resources in Bangladesh. People sympathetic to Jamaat are in Bangladeshi administration and even in the military. The February 2009 Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny is strongly suspected to have been engineered by Jamaat to foil war crime trials.
The best way for Jamaat to foil war crime trials is by creating a law and order problem in the country. In any case Bangladesh is known for “confrontational politics,” with the two main political groups continuously struggling against each other in the streets, and less in the parliament of the country through political debates. The job of Jamaat has been made easy after the sup- port it has received from the main opposition, BNP.
In the days to come, it is expected that Jamaat will create further problems for law enforcement agencies by unleashing its violent cadres, most of whom aspire to establish an Islamic state in Bangladesh. Deterioration in law and order may also prompt the army to take over the administration outright, or through a proxy, as was done in January 2007, when a similar situation arose in the country.
This however, does not mean the war crime trials should be stopped. The war crime trials should be taken to their logical conclusion to create a precedent in the country which discourages extremist and radical elements. But the government of the day in Bangladesh must also act swiftly and efficiently to maintain law and order to prevent extra-constitutional forces thwarting the whole exercise.
The writer is associate fellow in the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.