Thursday, 28 February 2013

Sayedee verdict: some preliminary comments

So, Sayedee has (predictably) been sentenced to death by hanging. I've been having a cursory look through the verdict, available here. It's a fairly big document but one can get a rough idea of what the tribunal is all about by just skimming through the introductory bits - it's peppered with lofty legal lingo (probably sketched by Ahmed Ziauddin and his minion(s) a while ago) but one should not be deterred by that; its purpose is to make sure the casual person is convinced that the people involved are sophisticated lawyers who know what they're doing (didn't Ziauddin say something along these lines in one of the leaked Skype conversations?). So, starting with the introduction, the first thing that captures one's attention is the simplistic vision of the events of 1971 that is presented. The judgment portrays Mujib as essentially declaring independence at his Ramna Race Course speech, something he carefully avoided doing; we learn from Sisson & Rose (the definitive study on the political aspects of the war) that as late as July 1971, the Awami League government in exile was prepared to consider a political agreement with Yahya Khan that did not involve independence of East Pakistan. It was however Khan who was refusing any kind of negotiation with the Awami League. According to Sisson & Rose, it was only in September 1971 that 'Khondikar Mushtaq, reputed to be the leader of the Awami League most inclined to pursue a political settlement, declared that the aim was now "total independence"'. The "independence" of March 1971 was declared by General Zia over clandestine radio - hardly a formal declaration supported by a vast contingent of people. 

Now of course, the court chooses not go into this messy part of the history - how could it, given that the ICT act enables prosecutions for "crimes against peace" (Ghulam Azam is charged for these if I recall correctly), which could only have taken place if Bangla Desh was indeed an independent country on the 25th March 1971. Sisson & Rose, and before them, the important 1972 report by the International Commission of Jurists, refer to the 1971 war as a civil war - an insult to most nationalist Bangladeshis (see e.g. this rant against the ICJ hosted at the ICSF, run by the likes of Ahmad Ziauddin - the man who may well have written large chunks of the verdict we're reading today). The ICJ report states:

"Thus the scene was set for a brutal civil war, in which each side was convinced that the cause they were fighting for was right. The Pakistan army, the Biharis, the Muslim League and the members of the Jamaat-e-Islam were fighting for the unity of an Islamic Pakistan. The Bengalis were fighting for the right to run their own country without interference and exploitation from outside."

Moreover, in the elections of 1970, only about 42% of the population of East Pakistan voted for the Awami League - which was not running on a platform of independence. These subtleties are entirely erased from the memory of the Bengali nationalist narrative. The ICT judgment with ease turns this 42% into 'all people':

War of Liberation that ensued, all people of East Pakistan wholeheartedly supported and participated in the call to free Bangladesh but a small number of Bangalees, Biharis, other pro-Pakistanis, as well as members of a number of different religion-based political parties joined and/or collaborated with the Pakistan military to actively oppose the creation of independent Bangladesh. 

The crimes committed against Biharis by nationalist Bengalis are of course entirely ignored by the ICT. Here is the ICJ '72 report again:

There can be no doubt that in many of these towns where there was a substantial Bihari population, the Bengalis turned against the Biharis during the short period they were in control and some terrible massacres resulted. Among the places where this happened were Chittagong, Khulna, Jessore, Comilla, Rangpur, Phulbari, Dinajpur and Mymensingh. In areas where the non-Bengalis were in a majority, as in some of the railway towns, the Biharis turned and attacked the Bengalis. For example, in Paksey nearly all the Bengalis who had not fled were murdered.

The most glaring problem with the general aspect of the tribunal, however, is this. A good number of pages in the judgment are devoted to arguing that the 1973 International Crimes Act still applies and that individuals (such as Sayedee) can still be legitimately prosecuted under it. There is a problem here, however: the 1973 act explicitly says that 

The tribunal shall have the power to try and punish any individual or group of individuals, or any member of any armed, defence or auxiliary forces, irrespective of his nationality, who commits or has committed in the territory of Bangladesh (...)

The obvious question arises: why are no Pakistani citizens on trial? Even the staunchest hater of collaborators and Jamaat-e-Islaami would recognise that the vast majority of war crimes in 1971 were perpetrated by the Pakistani army. One could say that it is perhaps unrealistic to expect Pakistan to surrender one of its citizens to Bangladesh? However, recall that Abul Kalam Azad was tried and sentenced to death in absentia, and he is moreover reported to have escaped to Pakistan. Almost comically, Ahmad Shafique said the goverment will issue an Interpol warrant on Azad - indicating that the government will not stop at any length to get their hands on the criminals of 1971. That same Shafique is on the record as having stated the following (according to Suzanne Linton, in her important article on war crimes trials in Bangladesh; Criminal Law Forum 2010:21):

On 30 July 2009, at the Second International Conference on Genocide, Truth and Justice in Dhaka, the Hon. Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs categorically stated that there
would be no Pakistanis tried under this law. 

This most of all hints at the sad and disappointing reality of the ICT: it is not about ending impunity (no Pakistani will ever be tried for war crimes - not to mention documented and self-confessed war criminals like Kader Siddique) and it is not about justice (the Biharis are seen by the nationalist Bengali as barely human for their speaking the language of the Other, and their "irrational" desire for a united Pakistan). What could have been a genuine endeavour to shed light on the truth of what happened in 1971 has turned into another exercise in petty political vendettas and perpetuating an infantile one-dimensional narrative of a complex and tragic period in history. 

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Ghulam Azam's trial

The prosecution have been placing arguments for the last seven days and would continue with placing the closing argument today. Earlier in the morning, the three-member tribunal rejected two prayers of Azam -- bail petition and taking written statement of Prof William Schabas and Gen Jack Deverell as defence testimony.

All quite predictable - the court doesn't need to hear from some random bideshis on their Liberation War. Sheikh Mujib told us that 3 million people have been killed, and everyone knows that JI leaders are all war ciminals. What else is there to it?

I for one would have been quite interested to see Schabas' statement - he seems like an interesting guy.

A bit more detail is available in this older article:

The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)-1 today rejected an application of counsels of former Jamaat ameer Ghulam Azam, seeking tribunal summonses upon two of their foreign witnesses. "The defence can produce whoever they want as defence witnesses, but the total number should be 12. But we are not inspired to issue any summonses upon any defence witnesses," the tribunal said in the order rejecting the petition.
"As such the petition is rejected," the tribunal added.

Yesterday, during the hearing, chief prosecutor Golam Arif Tipu also strongly opposed the application and said the tribunal can seek expert opinion whenever it needs one, but no one can come in front by himself and ask the tribunal to take his opinion for the trial.

He also questioned about the legitimacy of their expert status and said "can a witness be called as an expert?"

"It has not been established so far that they are experts," Tipu said.

Yes, I mean, what would Schabas know about genocide? He's just the former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Sayedee verdict expected

Meanwhile, youths of the unprecedented movement, demanding capital punishment to all war criminals, gathered at the Gonojagoron Mancha at Shahbagh yesterday evening to resist Jamaat and student body Islami Chhatra Shibir's possible violence and covert attacks. Shahbagh protesters said they would continue their demonstration all night until the verdict is delivered.

They said they would celebrate and return home in elation after Sayedee had been awarded the death penalty. They would continue with their agitation if the verdict fell short of their expectations, they added. 

Yesterday, Tribunal-1 Chairman Justice ATM Fazle Kabir said, “The judgement has already been prepared. Let the matter be fixed for tomorrow [today] for the judgement."

The funny part is that when Jamaat was holding hartals following the ICT Skype scandal in December, the "progressive" types now at Shahbag were outraged by what they saw as attempts to influence the decisions of court. 

The Ministry of Truth

Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu yesterday accused national daily Amar Desh, Naya Diganta and Sangram of spreading propaganda against the youths' ongoing movement at Shahbagh.

"Ideologically, these newspapers are against the Liberation War and many of the owners and journalists of these dailies were instigators of genocide committed during the Liberation War in 1971," he said at a press briefing at the ministry.
These newspapers have been confusing people with false and fabricated information and instigating religious sentiment of the Muslims, said Inu

Inu added that in order to avoid further confusion among the people, all opposition papers will be banned, their owners and journalists charged with war crimes, and only the government-sanctioned false and fabricated information from rabidly pro-Shahbag papers such as the Daily Star allowed.

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Great Leader has spoken

In a public outburst of piety, "Sheikh" Hasina demonstrates why she's truly worthy of her honorific title:

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Saturday warned that disparaging remarks against Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) and publishing those will not be tolerated.

“Many make disparaging remarks against Hazrat (Prophet Muhammad). I won’t tolerate that."

This is of course a veiled attack on Amar Desh, the BNP-leaning daily, which accused the Shahbag protesters of insulting religion. Lawsuits have been filed against the editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, and the Shahbag crowd issued an ultimatum demanding his arrest.

Now, warm feelings between Amar Desh/Mahmudur Rahman and the ruling Awami League go way back. The paper was closed down by the authorities back in 2010, prompting HRW to publish a report stating that

...the government should immediately ensure that an impartial investigation is conducted into allegations by the editor, Mahmudur Rahman, that he was beaten and abused in custody, Human Rights Watch said.

More than 100 police in riot gear stormed the offices of Amar Desh in the middle of the night of June 2, 2010, and arrested Rahman. At least 34 charges have been lodged against him, including 28 involving defamation. The police shut down the printing press, said the paper's license to print had been revoked, and took away all copies of the newspaper that had been printed for that morning's distribution. Police officers attacked and wounded several journalists working the late night shift.

The authorities should also fully examine the credibility and legitimacy of any evidence they have gathered. The publisher of Amar Desh, Mohammad Hasmat Ali, told Rahman that members of National Security Intelligence took him to their headquarters and forced him to sign two blank sheets of paper. The authorities subsequently claimed that Ali had signed two statements, and that they had decided to take legal action against Rahman on the basis of those statements.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Shahbag is being co-opted by the AL government for its political purposes, and, perhaps unwittingly, the Shahbag crowd is going along with this. It's interesting to note that Imran H Sarker, one of the organisers of the protest who appears to have become a sort of self-styled spokesman for Shahbag's demands is an AL member. He's quoted in the article I linked to above:

“The Jamaat-leaning Amar Desh has instigated (Friday’s) attacks. It’s (Acting) Editor Mahmudur Rahman must be detained within 24 hours,” said Imran H Sarker, one of the organisers of the movement demanding death sentences for all convicted war criminals and a ban on the Jamaat on Friday. 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Subversive activities and anti-government leaflets

This is from roughly two months ago but fits well in the general context of the last few posts:

Law enforcers detained Tasneem Alam, central publicity secretary of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, at his Uttara residence in the capital yesterday for possession of anti-government leaflets and booklets. 

Police also rounded up 21 female members of Jamaat and its women students' wing Islami Chhatri Sangstha from the latter's office in Moghbazar for their suspected link to “subversive activities.”

 And then a few weeks later, this:

Police detained 13 suspected members of Islami Chhatri Sangstha, women student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, in front of National Press Club in the capital on Saturday.
Shahbagh police picked them up around 3:30pm while they were coming out of the press club after taking part in a roundtable meeting on women's rights issue there.


Syed Nurul Islam, deputy police commissioner (Ramna division), said the detainees are suspected to be members of the Islami Chhatri Sangstha and are the aides of the 21 women arrested earlier.
"We are trying to know about their political background and their motives," he said.

As far as I know, being a member of the ICS was not a crime at that point - perhaps this article is actually from the coming April of this year and somehow travelled back in time?

Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Legal Record

"Over 48,350 activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and its allies have been sued in Dhaka and 10 other districts in connection with Friday's violence."

How can the government sue 50k people in one day, I hear you say. Welcome to Bangladesh! If you look further down in the article, it takes a distinctively Orwellian twist:

Police sued 5,000 persons, naming 70, activists of Jamaat, Shibir and their allies for Friday’s vandalism at Sylhet central Shaheed Minar and other parts of the district.

So what about the remaining 4930 activists? Here's a guess: the forms have been filled in, only the "name" fields remained empty. When a suitable candidate who the police doesn't particularly like pops up, his name is scribbled down in the right box, and lo! he participated in riots and is in for some serious jail time.

The marauding JI types keep getting killed

"Jamaat activist Abdus Salam was killed in a clash with the ruling Awami League men after Juma prayers in Paira Chattar area in the town."

"A processionist was killed and 20 sustained bullet wounds when police opened fire on marauding Jamaat-Shibir activists at Jindabazar in Sylhet city after Juma prayers."

Doesn't sound quite as simple as JI being the only party resorting to violence here, does it? In fact, I predict that the more heavy-handed the police become, the more violent the JI response will be. And I dare not think what will happen if the government goes ahead with its plans to ban the party

The Daily Star hacked

"Unidentified hackers broke into The Daily Star website, uploading puzzling headlines in favour of Jamaat-e-Islami.
 The site was hacked on Friday afternoon after it ran several news items on violence committed by Jamaat men in city and elsewhere."

I ain't no JI fan, but I have to say this is quite amusing, especially given the ridiculously one-sided reporting by the Daily Star on all things ICT, Shahbag and Jamaat-e-Islami related.

Also, did you notice how in most cases, only police authorities are quoted as sources for what happened in these 'clashes'?

Friday, 22 February 2013

Human Rights Watch Statements on the ICT

Starting from May 2011- cautiously optimistic statements:

"The attempt by the Bangladeshi government to create a domestic tribunal for such grave crimes could set a valuable international precedent," said Adams. "But without changes to the law and rules of procedure, the process may not meet international fair trial standards. This could result in a lack of credibility for the process in Bangladesh and internationally, which would only benefit those responsible for the horrific crimes of this period. Fortunately, the government and tribunal can fix these problems easily if they have the will."

Interestingly, HRW chooses here not to mention violence perpetrated by the freedom fighter side - presumably, it was clear already at this point that the trials would only target collaborators of the Pakistani regime:

On March 26, it began Operation Searchlight, sending troops into East Pakistan to arrest Awami League leaders and put down protests. The Pakistani army and affiliated vigilante groups embarked on a massive wave of violence, including widespread rape. 

July 2011: not fully satisfied with the changes to the ICT act, but generally positive. The trials haven't started yet, so it's all about meeting international standards at this point.

"We want these trials to succeed in bringing the people responsible for the horrific crimes of 1971 to justice," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "While the amendments are a significant improvement, key problems still need to be fixed to ensure fair trials and avoid unnecessarily lengthy appeals." 

"Bangladesh has promised to meet international standards in these trials, but it has some way to go to meet this commitment."

November 2011: the trials have started and the problems begin. Complaints about intimidation of defence by police and intelligence services. According to HRW, the process was already 'tarnished' at this point.

 Lawyers representing the accused before the ICT have reported being harassed by state officials and threatened with arrests. Several witnesses and an investigator working for the defense have also reported harassment by police and threats for cooperating with the defense.

Another senior lawyer and a prominent member of the Jamaat-e-Islaamiya party, Abdur Razzaq, faces an arrest warrant on charges relating to riots in Dhaka which took place in September. Razzaq, who was in Europe at the time of the riots, has been granted bail. He is expected to play a leading role in defending several of the accused. Human Rights Watch has learned from credible sources that ICT prosecutors are also seeking to formulate war crimes charges against Razzaq and that the current arrest warrant is intended to make it difficult for him to participate fully in preparing the defense.

Human Rights Watch has also learned that a key defense witness has been arrested. A journalist who was conducting research for the defense has been threatened with arrest and has since gone into hiding in fear for his life.

A further nine defense witnesses are facing criminal charges based on complaints against them filed with the police by a prosecution witness. Some prosecution witnesses have told defense counsel that they were coerced into providing statements to the prosecution and were warned against cooperating with the defense.

“Harassment of defense counsel and witnesses further tarnishes a flawed process,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the Bangladeshi government wants these trials to be taken seriously it must ensure that the rights of the accused are fully respected. That means making sure that lawyers and witnesses don’t face threats or coercion.”

November 2012: allegation that a witness in the Sayedee case was abducted. HRW is clearly taking this seriously, despite the fact it is dismissed by the court as a fabrication by the defence.

“An allegation as serious as the abduction of a witness deserves prompt action, and a thorough and impartial investigation,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of ordering an independent investigation, the court asked a party in the case to investigate, and then blithely accepted its answer. This is an unacceptable way to respond to an allegation of an abduction. Where is Shukho Ranjon Bali?”

Still, HRW appears willing to entertain the possibility that the episode was indeed a fabrication:

“Finding out what happened in this case is essential to the credibility of the court and the entire war crimes trial process,” Adams said. “If the defense was involved in a hoax it should face penalties. If Bali was abducted then his life may be in danger, and the court and government, by failing to investigate, are responsible for his fate.”

December 2012, in the wake of the Economist revelations, informally known as Skypegate:

On December 11 Justice Nizamul Huq, chairman of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) hearing allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious crimes committed in the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan, resigned after audio tapes and email correspondence were published concerning his conduct in his capacity as the presiding judge in the Sayedee case and other ICT matters. The Economist published further emails and communications on December 13 which it said showed collusion between the judge, the prosecutors, and the executive.
“It would be highly irresponsible and unprofessional for a verdict to be delivered when none of the judges heard all the evidence and were unable to assess the credibility of key witnesses, particularly in a trial involving 40-year old evidence and complex legal issues,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Before the chair of the court resigned for improprieties only one judge had heard the totality of the evidence, and now even that one judge is gone. A new trial is the only way for the court to preserve its integrity.”

There has not, of course, been another trial.

January 2013: further concern regarding the disappeared witness. It's clear that HRW is taking it seriously, presumably due to the various pieces of evidence strongly indicating that the abduction did indeed take place:
A relative of Bali’s has said that he last heard from Bali on the date of the alleged abduction. The relative reported that Bali said he was in Dhaka and was going to testify in court. An independent journalist’s inquiry has confirmed that phone records indicate that there was a phone call from Bali to this relative. Family members have not heard from him since and have expressed their concern.

Although he vociferously denied any bias against the defense, Justice Huq had a member of the prosecution team and the deputy registrar in his chambers during the entire interview with Human Rights Watch, as he had in previous meetings. Justice Huq has since resigned as chairman of the ICT following publication by The Economist of intercepted email and phone conversations showing that there was prohibited contact between Huq, the prosecution, government officials, and an external adviser.

February 2013: As part of a general report on the human rights situation in Bangladesh, some strongly worded comments on the ICT.

Glaring violations of fair trial standards became apparent in 2012 in the trials of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a wholly domestic court set up to try those accused of war crimes during the 1971 war of independence. One of the present government’s central campaign pledges in 2008 was to ensure that these long overdue trials took place. Human Rights Watch has long called for justice for victims in the 1971 liberation war. However, serious flaws in the law and rules of procedure governing these trials have gone unaddressed, despite proposals from the US government and many international experts.

 All the ICT trials underway in 2012 were replete, with complaints from both the prosecution and defense. Each side accused the other of witness intimidation.  In one apparently serious irregularity, the prosecution claimed that it was unable to produce several of its witnesses and asked that written statements be admitted as evidence, absent any direct or redirect examination. The court granted the request despite the fact that the defense produced government safe house logbooks which appeared to show that some of these witnesses had been in the safe house and available to testify. In one case, when on November 5 the defense attempted to bring one of these witnesses, Shukho Ranjan Bali, to court, he was abducted from the gates of the court house by police officers in a marked police van.

HRW seems to now view the abduction as a fact.

In December, The Economist published an article detailing some hacked email and Skype conversations between the chairman of the ICT and an external adviser based in Brussels. These communications revealed longstanding prohibited contact between the Chairman, the government, the prosecution, and the advisor. They showed direct government interference in the operations of the ICT. The publication of these communications caused the Chairman to resign, leaving a bench in which none of the three judges has heard the totality of the evidence against the accused. Motions for retrials in four of the cases due to these communications were rejected by the tribunal, calling into question its impartiality.

The trials against the alleged mutineers and the alleged war criminals are deeply problematic, riddled with questions about the independence and impartiality of the judges and fairness of the process,” Adams said. “This is tragic, as those responsible for serious crimes could end up appearing to be victims of a miscarriage of justice. By dismissing all criticism out of hand without any real inquiry into them, the government shows it is more concerned about winning votes than about following the rule of law.”

The choice of wording here is deeply concerning: it is as if Adams himself also thinks the defendants are probably guilty, but the problems with the court could enable them to make themselves into victims. Would it not have been appropriate to at least mention the possibility that innocent people may be sentences, and probably executed?

February 2013, in the wake of Shahbag protests - a mixture of  meek and fairly strong wordings:

Retroactive legislation that violates fair trial standards undermines the legitimacy of the work of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The amendments were offered to enable an appeals court to overturn a life sentence imposed on Abdul Qader Mollah and impose the death penalty.

 (one gets the impression from the previous few statements by HRW that the legitimacy of the work of the ICT is quite undermined already)

“Justice for victims of war crimes and other serious abuses during the 1971 war of liberation is essential,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But a government supposedly guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to overrule court decisions when it doesn’t like them. The Bangladesh government should pause, take a deep breath, and repeal the proposed amendments, which make a mockery of the trial process.”

Thursday, 21 February 2013

This is the kind of violence Sheikh Hasina finds cute

"At least 20 people were injured in a clash between BCL and Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD) activists over placing wreaths at the Shaheed Minar in Sylhet Agricultural University yesterday."

If Jamaat's student wing was involved, this would have been top news on the Daily Star.

Sheikh Hasina in support of Shahbag

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday thanked the youths for raising voice against the 1971 war criminals, and said her government would translate into action the oath thousands of protesters took at the Shahbagh grand rally on Friday.
Speaking in parliament, Hasina said the tribunals would deliver judgments according to the law, but they should consider the people's expectations while giving verdicts on war crimes cases.
“I am making this call to them [the judges] through parliament,” said Hasina, also the leader of the House.

Independence of the judiciary, anyone?

Thus Spoke Muhith, the Minister of Corruption

"People who talk against the ongoing war crimes trial and side with war criminals have no right to live in Bangladesh, Finance Minister AMA Muhith told the rally."

And people are still comparing Shahbag with Tahrir!? Would Habib al Adly, the Egyptian ex-minister of torture come out in support of the protesters at Tahrir?

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Tui Rajakar!

So goes one of the favourite slogans one sees on Shahbag related social media these days. In translation, 'You're a collaborator', or war criminal - it seems to be able to take on a range of meanings. The word rajakar, roughly meaning volunteer, comes from Urdu (رضا کار), and originally Persian where کار means work, and رضا pleasure or consent (ultimately derived from Arabic). Now the Arabic ض tends to be pronounced as a 'z' west of Iraq and the Bengalis have a funny thing of switching their z's into j's, hence Rajakar. Interestingly, apparently the j<->z replacement goes in the other direction too as in the case of this lovely little delicacy.

But I digress: the word rajakar one of the favourite weapons used in the Bangladeshi political milieu for conducting smear campaigns against enemies. This practice has a history going back all the way to 1972, as detailed in my previous post; these days we mostly see it applied to the JI leaders currently on trial at the ICT. However, there are other - non Jamaat-e-Islaami - politicians who have been given this label. It seems that every self-respecting Bangladeshi politician must at some point in their career be called a razakar, no matter how dubious the label might look in terms of their political affiliations.

Here are some recent examples:
  • Kader Siddique, the Tiger of Tangail and hero of the Liberation war called a razakar by some AL goons.
  • Kader Siddique summoned to court for calling present Home Minister, Dr Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir of the Awami League, a razakar.
  • Awami League MP Ashiqur Rahman, again accused by Kader Siddique. Siddique makes an interesting point in this article
Citing the murder of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, the KSJL boss said the Prime Minister had been in his house and said the Jamaat-Shibir has no right to politics. "Why didn't she go to the house of Biswajit Das and say Bangladesh Chhatra League has also no right to do politics?"

           Why, indeed?
  • Kamal Lohani, described here as 'eminent journalist and cultural activist' calls for Khaleda Zia to be declared a war criminal.
  • And the list goes on and on. But surpassing all this in its sheer level of bizarreness must be this, courtesy of our quirky friends at Shahbag: "“Razakar ludu” -- a game of snakes and ladders with the war criminals as the main players."

Collaborators' Trials 1972

From 'Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood' by Anthony Mascarenhas, talking about the Collaborators' Order of 1972 - a number of  eerie similarities (but also differences) with the present trials:

... The main thrust of the Order was directed against Bengali politicians who had
cooperated with the Pakistan authorities (such as the former Governor of East Pakistan,
Dr A. M. Malik, and his law minister Jasimuddin Ahmad) and the pro-Pakistan armed gangs
such as the Razakars and the notourious Al Badar. The latter had been involved in acts of
murder, rape, arson and looting and as such the guilty ones deserved to be brought to
justice. But it was invidious to single out the collaborating politicians for punishment
when the entire civilian administration of East Pakistan had not only been immunized
from retribution but had also been installed as the new administration of Bangladesh. When
all is said and done these government functionaries and policement were in a natural
position to collaborate - and collaborate many of them did. Yet the Collaborators' Order,
with minor exceptions, was not directed against them.

At the same time the Awami Leaguers found the Order a convenient instrument to pay off old scores against political opponents and to silence the opposition. At the end of November 1972, the Chief Whip of the Awami League, Shah Moazzam Hussain, complained that those who were trying to oppose the party in the forthcoming general elections were the same collaborators who had sided with the Pakistan army junta. Even some '16th Division' officers seized the opportunity to hit back at unfortunate individuals who had crossed them at some time or other. All they had to do to ensure an opponent's ruin was to denounce him as a collaborator. The government did the rest. He was clamped in jail. His property was seized - all before the charge was investigated. Understandably some tried to defend themselves against this misdirected zeal. And since guns were readily available the violence spread. Soon the jails began to fill. On 3 October, 1972, the Home Minister publicly stated that 41,800 people had been arrested under the Collaborators' Order.

The first collaborators trials were held in Jessore. M. R. Akhtar ('Mukul') relates an interesting incident in his book 'Mujibur Rakta Lal'. The main in the dock, who had been accused of being a Razakar, stood silent when the magistrate repeatedly asked him, 'Are you guilty or not guilty?' In exasperation some lawyers in the court shouted at him, 'Why don't you plead?' The man finally answered: 'Sir, I'm thinking what to say.'

Magistrate: 'What are you thinking?'

Accused: (pointing to magistrate) 'I'm thining that the person who occupies that chair is the one who recruited me as a Razakar. Now he has become a magistrate. It's a cruel twist of fate that I am in the dock and he is conducting my trial.'

Another interesting comment comes from Robert MacLennan the British MP who was an observer at the trials. 'In the dock the defendants are scarcely more pitiable than the succession of confused prosecution witnesses driven  (by the the 88-year-old defence counsel) to admit that they, too, served the Pakistan government but are now ready to swear blind that their loyalty was to the government of Bangladesh in exile.'

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Nick Cohen on Shahbag

We have yet another unreservedly pro-Shahbag article in the Western press, this time by Nick Cohen in Guardian's CiF. He recently had another piece in the Spectator praising Gita Sahgal's efforts in establishing the Centre for Secular Space in east London.

Cohen starts off by making the usual simplistic comparison of Shahbag with Tahrir square, forgetting that Tahrir square was about toppling a tyrant while Shahbag is primarily about demanding a death penalty for alleged war criminals and banning Jamaat-e-Islaami, which happens to be conveniently aligned with the interests of the Awami League-led government. There are also calls for secularism, but these seem to be limited to the extent of requiring JI (or 'Jamaat politics', as one often sees on social media) to be banned. I have not heard for any calls to throw out articles in the Bangladeshi Constitution in blatant contradiction with secular principles, such as the ones stating that the state is based on "high ideals of absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" and that "The state religion of the Republic is Islam".

He then blames "Islamist theocratic fascism" for massacres of the Bengali population in 1971, while forgetting to mention that the Pakistani regime at the time was led by a military figure, President Yahya Khan, who was quite fond of alcohol and at best paid lip service to religion. The idea that "Islamists" and only Islamists are capable of communal violence seems to be quite popular with the likes of Cohen and Sahgal. Such simplistic views cannot account for Bengali violence towards the Bihari minority in 1971, or the oppression of the Chakma people by rampant Bangladeshi nationalist ideology ever since the Liberation.

Although it is a fact that JI sided with the military regime (a morally despicable decision in the opinion of this author) - in order to preserve the unity of Pakistan, according to them - it is by no means clear  to what extent JI and its members committed atrocities during the war. That was what anyone with a sense of justice hoped the ICT would have established by impartial investigation, but instead they gave us trials marred by disappearing witnesses, external "advisors" writing up documents (possibly judgments) for the judges and the prosecution, intimidated witnesses and an endless list of other irregularities. Essentially, at the end of all this, we will know nothing more about the crimes of '71 and JI's role in them.

Cohen summarises the Pakistani ideologue Mawdudi as someone who "wanted a global war to establish a caliphate". While Mawdudi and his ideology are highly problematic, such a simplistic evaluation does not stand. Mawdudi and his Jamaat-e-Islaami (certainly in its early stages) were seen by many young intellectual Muslims at the time to be a welcome and refreshing alternative to the stale discourse of the orthodox ulama, the molvis and the peers. To see this, one doesn't need to look further than the University of Chicago orientalist and modernist Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman. Rahman, despite being highly critical of Mawdudi, found it fit to note at the beginning of his important book "Islam and Modernity" that the passing away of Mawdudi constituted a "loss to Islam". The British Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar was in his youth a Mawdudite himself, but became more critical of him later on in life. Sardar notes that

Unlike other Muslim reformist thinkers of the 20th century, Maududi was passionate about democracy. He favoured gradual reform and believed social and political change in Muslim societies would arise through individual transformation. But he believed that only pious citizens could produce a pious Islamic state.

This is hardly the description of a fanatical Bin Ladenite zealot, which is what Cohen and many at Shahbag seem to reduce him to.

As for Cohen's praise of the Quilliam Foundation: the founders of QF have been discredited in the eyes of the vast majority of muslims in the UK for their branding of everyone and anyone as potential dangerous extremists, while at the same time enjoying the fame (and cash) lavished on them by the previous Labour government and frolicking with neo-cons and Arab tyrants.

Cohen ends his article with the following

The most bracing effect of the demonstrations in Dhaka and London is that the terror is not being forgotten and liberals are being forced to pick sides. Let us hope that they stop picking the wrong one.

One is again forced here to either subscribe to the shallow nationalist narrative coming from Shahbag, or be branded as a supporter of "Islamist theocratic fascists". In the eyes of Cohen, the "theocratic thugs" of JI are infinitely worse than the "secularist thugs" of the Awami League, even before looking at what evidence for thuggery there is on either side. One is not allowed to be critical of both. It is precisely this lack of balance which makes me a pessimist about Shahbag and what it stands for.

Shafique's latest shenanigans

"The government is going to amend the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 incorporating a provision for trying the organisations involved in the crimes against humanity in 1971, the law minister said on Sunday."

How does one put an organisation on trial? Anyone?

Human Rights Watch on changes to ICT laws

"Government-supported protests and the comments of the prime minister and other government and Awami League officials may affect the possibility of fair trials in ongoing and future cases, Human Rights Watch said. Reliable sources have told Human Rights Watch that some defense witnesses have decided not to appear in court, fearing reprisals. Human Rights Watch is concerned that judges may be afraid to give any sentence other than the death penalty in other cases.

“Instead of explaining to the public that the separation of powers and the rule of law mean accepting the decision of the courts, the government has now directly intervened in the trial process,” Adams said. “Convictions of those responsible for the 1971 atrocities is important for the country, but not at the expense of the principles that make Bangladesh a democracy.” "

'may affect the possibility of fair trials'? HRW has done a good job of documenting the various problems with the ICT and the trials, but the language used here is far too soft. How many collusion scandals, witness kidnappings, fabricated pieces of evidence and intimidated witnesses will it take before the obvious truth is acknowledged: it was a mistake to hold these trials in Bangladesh in the first place. They are not fair and have not been fair from day one. Had they been held in the Hague or perhaps even in Bangladesh under international auspices, JI would have had much less room for accusations of unfairness and the AL government would not have had the possibility to use the trials for its own petty political purposes. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Origins of Shahbag: Bangladeshi Nationalism

Consider this passage from Rahnuma Ahmed's recent critical analysis of the Shahbag movement, quoting a blogger:

We want the ruling party to be pro-liberation, we want the opposition party to be pro-liberation, we want that every political party, every political leader, every organisation, every school, college, madrassah, university, all business organisations, civic organisations, everyone in the country, should be pro-liberation. Not a tall order but rather basic when you think of it, for, after all, it is the liberation war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.

A dichotomy is implicitly constructed here: even 40 years after the war, one is either a collaborator, or pro-liberation. Moreover, the dichotomy must extend to every level of the state and civil institutions and even individual citizens. It is not clear what exactly is meant by 'pro-liberation': does one have to non-critically accept the Awami League-centric narrative of the history with all its flaws? Does a Chakma or Bihari citizen of Bangladesh have to be as pro-liberation as everyone else, given the discrimination and internal colonialism that these people have been subjected to?

Now, Jamaat-e-Islaami has (somewhat ineptly) attempted to catch up with the development of the pro-liberation narrative and states in its manifesto that

Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami started working with the pledge to safeguard the independence, sovereignty and Islamic values of Bangladesh which became independent through a great liberation war in 1971.

They forget to mention here that at the time they considered what they now call the 'great liberation war' to have been a secessionist rebelion led by Sheikh Mujib and the Awami League, in which they sided with the Pakistani military regime. It's not clear at which point the views of JI towards what happened in '71 changed, but they do seem to have moved on - at least on the face of it - to accommodate to the prevailing narrative about the liberation war.

As most or all other analyses of Shahbag by Bangladeshi writers, Rahnuma Ahmed does not address the credibility of the verdicts on Azad and Molla. She wonders in passing why "the ICT was formed not drawing upon the country’s best judges, lawyers and prosecutors, but on the basis of mindless allegiance and loyalty to the Awami League?", which appears to imply that the process itself was credible, but the people involved incompetent or influenced by the Awami League political establishment, which presumably resulted in the prison sentence rather than the desired execution.

Al Jazeera English: "Bangladesh's War Wounds"

Link here. Featuring Shahriar Kabir, the Bangladeshi secularist who was a leading figure in the 1992 "People's Court" which "sentenced" Ghulam Azam to death; Abu Baker Molla, a JI spokesman; and Abbas Faiz of Amnesty International.

Shahriar Kabir rather predictably states that "statistics" show that 3 million unarmed people were killed in '71 by the West Pakistani army and various auxiliary forces. Of course, in reality there are no Bangladeshi government statistics on the actual number of war casualities, or the breakdown of that number into combatants and non-combatants or Bengalis and non-Bengalis. The problem of ascertaining the number of casualties is addressed at David Bergman's blog.

Abu Baker Molla comes across as somewhat incoherent, his English not being particularly strong. His main point is the trials are politically motivated and that the issue of war crimes was settled a long time ago and that the early lists of war criminals included only names of Pakistani army officers.

Faiz tries to strike a balance between calling for accountability and ensuring that the trials are fair, while not stating any opinion on the fairness of the trials.

A lingustic aside

On the etymology of Jamaat-i-Islaami or Jamaat-e-Islaami: the 'i' or 'e' presumably originates in the Persian ezafe, used to express belonging or adjective-nouns. The usage in "Jamaat-e-Islaami" seems to be of the latter kind. Perhaps the usage of this construct foreign to the Bengali language in the party name indicates that the party is a kind of historical relict, from a bygone age preceding 1971. This is in my view is connected to the causes of the Shahbag protests and sheer amount of hatred shown towards JI, in a way I'll try to elaborate later on.

To ban or not to ban?

To get the ball going, here's a quote from Sheikh Hasina, from an interview in the Bangladeshi English language paper, the Daily Star:

“They don’t believe in democracy, they believe in criminal activities. So, their politics is politics of crime,” Hasina told journalists while visiting the bereaved family of the 30-year-old blogger at their residence at Pallabi in the capital Saturday afternoon.
“They don’t have any right to do politics in a free Bangladesh, they don’t, they don’t,” Hasina said in a choked voice. 

This would appear to indicate that the government's primary argument for wishing to ban Jamaat-i-Islaami (henceforth referred to as JI) appears to be the violence that its youth wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), has been deploying in its confrontations with the police. Fingers have now also been pointed at ICS as the prime suspect in the murder of the Shahbag blogger, Ahmad Rajib Haidar. The problem with this argument is that JI and ICS do not hold a monopoly on politically motivated violence in Bangladesh. The student wings of the two major political parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are themselves notorious for acts of violence perpetrated against members of other parties' youth wings. To take a recent example, members of the Awami League student wing (BCL) beat and hacked to death Bishwajit Das, a young man who was mistaken for a member of the opposition. The representative of BCL was moreoever quick to blame the opposition student wings for the death.

First post

The purpose of this blog is to offer links to news items and some thoughts on the ongoing events in Bangladesh, including the protests in Shahbag whose primary demand is death sentences for politicians from the country's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-i-Islaami.