December 16, 2012 1:04 am 13 comments __
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By Haroon Habib

Beginning with Operation Searchlight on March 25, 1971 in Dhaka, the Pakistani army had perpetrated widespread violations of human rights with support from its local Islamist goons.  The massacre and mass rape in 1971 were the most incredible and calculated crimes in the 20th century.

Indiscriminate killing, rape and torture of unarmed civilians and destruction of properties by the occupation army and their local agents continued throughout the nine months. The marauding Pakistan army and their  local goons, who were mostly the members of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, carried out systematic executions as part of their plan to suppress the quest for national independence by the Bengalis.

The well-known researcher R. J. Rummel published a book in 1997, titled ‘Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900′, in which he states: “In East Pakistan (Bangladesh) [General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan and his top generals] also planned to murder its Bengali intellectual, cultural, and political elite. They also planned to indiscriminately murder hundreds of thousands of its Hindus and drive the rest into India. And they planned to destroy its economic base to ensure that it would be subordinate to West Pakistan (now Pakistan) for at least a generation to come. This despicable and cutthroat plan was outright genocide.”

The crimes were horrendous: some three million people were killed, nearly half a million women were raped and over 10 million people were forced to flee to India to escape military persecution. Justice has not yet caught up with the perpetrators. This has had a profound effect on Bangladesh’s society in the last four decades.

In mid-December 1971, when the Mukti Bahini and their Mitra Bahini were advancing to Dhaka, freeing the  occupied cities and towns,  the Pakistani forces were quickly abandoning their camps sensing imminent defeat . On the eve of their unconditional surrender to the Bangladesh-India Joint Command, on December 16, the local agents and cohorts  of the occupation army, under a carefully thought-out plan, eliminated hundreds of leading intellectuals, ostensibly to destroy the intellectual underpinning of the Bengali  nation.

Philosophers, professors, writers, poets, journalists, doctors, engineers and social thinkers were among those best known personalities who were picked up from their houses, blindfolded and taken to various desolate pits in Dhaka’s suburbs, only to be tortured and slaughtered. The bodies of those martyrs lay for days in those slaughter grounds till they were spotted after the surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka.

While the largest number of killings took place in Dhaka on December 14, the marauding army and their  killing squads — al-badr and razakar — butchered thousands of individuals almost in all parts of the country . The list is quite long. Records show that only on the night of December 14, over 200 intellectuals were murdered in Dhaka alone .

Bangladesh  remembers those patriotic sons of the soil while observing Martyred Intellectuals Day on December 14 . Streams of people  visit the Martyred Intellectuals Monument at Mirpur and Rayer Bazar, where a memorial was built on the  mass killing ground. Political, cultural and civic forums  commemorate the dire tragedy that took place just before the nation’s freedom.

In 1971, the Bengalis  faced a  worst genocide  in the name of Islam and Pakistan . Innumerable women were tortured, raped and killed. The Pakistani soldiers kept thousands of Bengali women as sex slaves in their camps and cantonments. Susan Brownmiller, who conducted a  study on the crime,  has estimated the number of raped women at being over 400,000.

Truly,  December , 2012  has come as a landmark month  for  Bangladesh  as the country has began a historic trial  of  those  perpetrators who had perpetrated heinous crimes against humanity.   Ironically, the  collaborators  of the marauding  army  are still conspiring  to  undermine the liberation war  and putting up a  renewed resistance  to foil the historic war crimes trial.

The war crimes trial  is going to open up a  new chapter in Bangladesh’s history. I would rather call it a  ’new liberation war’. The Sheikh Hasina government has set in motion a process that was long overdue. In fact, the process of the present trial is a resumption of the process that  began soon  after Bangladesh’s emergence. On January 24, 1972, The Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order was promulgated. The government led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the country,  constituted 73 Special Tribunals for trials of those who were directly involved in crimes like murder, rape, arson, loot and abduction. Till October 1973, those tribunals had disposed of 2,848 cases and sentenced a total of 752 persons to various terms of imprisonment. An estimated 11,000 accused were in jail.

But the process got stalled  after 1975. Gen Ziaur Rahman, had  repealed  the law  on December 31, 1975 ,  three months after the bloody changeover of 1975, and released all the convicted and under trial prisoners from prison.

Despite a widespread national desire to see justice done, in the three decades after 1975, a succession of military regimes swept aside all attempts at justice. The period also saw a planned rehabilitation of the war criminals and their supporters in national politics.

The war crimes trial in Bangladesh  is also a rejuvenation of the secular national  spirit  on  which basis the liberation war was fought and Bangladesh was emerged as an indpendent  country .  It also makes a moral point: that the rule of law must prevail and justice must be dispensed in the case of those who committed the crimes.

There was an earlier civic attempt to hold the much needed trial. On December 29, 1991 one of the leading  accused of war crimes, Ghulam Azam, became the ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami, the fundamentalist party that had taken up arms to oppose the country’s independence from Pakistan. Led by Jahanara Imam, a national committee was formed to lead a national  campaign . On February 14, 1992, the Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee was formed to bring Ghulam Azam, who was the chief of Jamaat-e-Islami in 1971, and his associates, to trial. A public  court, Gonoadalot, was formed and, on March 26, 1992, its verdict was pronounced  suggesting death penalty to  Ghulam Azam  . Sheikh Hasina, then the main opposition leader, moved a resolution  in Parliament to begin the formal prosecution of those who had committed war crimes in 1971. But the move did not bear fruit due to resistance from the  ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party(BNP).

Begun afresh in early 2007, the movement for the trial of war criminals got a meaningful boost through a  national campaign led by the Sector Commanders’ Forum. At the 2008 general elections, an overwhelming majority voted the present ruling alliance for their commitment to try the war criminals when in power. However, the  trial is not just a fulfillment of the current government’s political commitment, but also a step towards meeting a national obligation to the judicial process.

The completion of the trial could bring to a close a painful episode in Bangladesh’s history. On one hand, it will establish the rule of law; on the other, it will be able to help the new generation become aware of the sufferings the nation went through in its struggle for independent nationhood and understand how religion can be abused to justify heinous crimes like murder and rape.

The trial, therefore, is no ordinary one. It is an answer to the innermost urges of an aggrieved nation. It also addresses the travails of countless bereaved families, widows and orphans, those who were wounded and immobilized. It is, therefore, a solemn unfinished task, to remove a national stigma.

The irony is that those who committed the crimes as henchmen of the Pakistan army four decades ago, are now established political leaders, well-entrenched businessmen or highly connected Islamist, all of whom have their own agenda. Understandably, the tribunal as well as the government will have to face up to a hard reality. The war criminals of 1971, many of whom left the country at the dawn of independence but returned and were rehabilitated, thanks to the military and pseudo-democratic rulers, have become organized and powerful.


I feel  that if the trial  is withdrawn, or kept incomplete halfway through, under any pretext or compulsion,  Bangladesh’s liberal democratic polity  will have to suffer a great  blow. Those who had opposed the country’s independence  as hencemen of genocidal  Pakistani army, perpetrated  worst crimes against humanity on the name  of religion,  will be able to further consolidate their base if they succeed in frustrating the trial . The failure of the trial will  also ensure  rejuvenation of religious  fundamentalism, forceful  return of the political Islam   and  widen the Islamist militancy.


(Haroon Habib,  a Bangladesh Freedom Fighter, writer and columnist.)





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