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Professor Ghulam Azam’s Interview
on ATN News on 12 December 201
Question: An official charge has been submitted against you to the tribunal and we have heard that the tribunal will rule on 26th December whether to take it into cognizance. We would like to hear your reaction to this news.
Prof. Ghulam Azam: Of course you will ask me questions, but I am yet to find answer to one question – that is, no one called us ‘war criminals’ until 30 years after 1971. There had been war criminals. Sheikh Mujib himself solved this issue. He identified 195 Pakistani officers as war criminals with no mention of any civilians. He had also passed a law to punish them. They are now trying to put us on trial under this law. He made a list, passed a law to try them, but then forgave and freed them all after meeting Bhutto in Shimla. He branded those he thought to be their associates as ‘collaborators’ and passed a separate law to punish them. Around 100,000 people were arrested under this law. He tried a few of them, but when he realized that there were very few witness and little evidence could be found against the accused, then he forgave them all by declaring a general amnesty. So, he resolved it, he resolved the issue of war crimes. Now after 30 years, it is now 40 years. Why have they raised this issue once again after 40 years?
We were in movement against Ershad’s autocratic rule. BNP – Awami League – Jamaat were in the movement together where they sat with us in Liaison Committee meetings. Then we were not war criminals. BNP came to power in ’91 because of the ‘Caretaker Government’ system. If there were elections under Ershad while he was in power, then he would come back to power. That is why we demanded to include the caretaker system in our constitution, but the BNP government did not agree. BNP could form the government only because we supported them. They didn’t have the absolute majority. Yet, the BNP government did not agree to do this. During that time BNP forcefully took an Awami League seat in the Mohammadpur area of the Magura district. They didn’t let the Awami League candidate win. Awami League became furious and boycotted the parliament, and began agitating and demanding the caretaker system. This issue was ours; it was we who suggested this system, so we couldn’t sit quietly. We also joined Awami League in the agitation. As the issue was ours, so it was not natural for us to remain quiet. Even then we were not called war criminals.
I searched and found the answer to this question in one place. I don’t know whether you people asked them this question. You should ask why they never called these people ‘war criminals’ before 2001. Even the sector commanders never put forward this allegation. I searched and found the answer to this question that the election that was held in 2001, the third under the caretaker system, BNP and Jamaat contested in the election together. The parties were BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jatiyo Party and Islami Oikyo Jot. In that election, Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikyo Jot together did not contest in even 50 seats; in fact it was less than 50. Out of 300 seats, these two Islamic parties did not contest in 250 seats. It was BNP versus Awami League in those places. BNP got all the Islamic votes in those seats, like those who were our supporters. The total number of votes between BNP and Awami League was almost the same, 40% – 40%. BNP got a little bit more than 40%, but that was not even 1%. However, in terms of the number of seats, Awami League got only 58 whereas BNP got 197. How come there was such a difference in the number of seats in spite of both parties having the same amount of votes? It is because BNP got all the Islamic parties’ votes that made the difference.
There is even more examples – Awami League fails whenever BNP and Jamaat contest elections together. For example, we had the Chittagong Mayor election. Jamaat-e-Islami had its own candidate, but they withdrew it at the request of Begum Zia, and BNP candidate won by the margin of more than 110,000 votes. You people are journalists and you know that when BNP and Jamaat are together, then they become the majority. This is why the journalists’ organization has split. Look at Supreme Court Bar Association election; Jamaat and BNP contested together in the last two elections and Awami League had to fail. The same thing happened in other bar association elections and in elections among teachers’ organisations. Awami League realized that it is not possible for them to win in elections when BNP and Jamaat are together, so they thought that it is necessary to get rid of Jamaat from politics so that they can’t fight elections together with BNP. This is the main reason why they want to make Jamaat-e-Islami lose their leadership, and ensure that they can’t play any role in politics. That is why the term ‘war criminal’ has been used as an insult since 2001. Now they have started to put us on trial on that law which was enacted to try the real war criminals of Pakistan.
Question: We know that there was a ‘People’s Court’ in 1992 and a ‘Public Enquiry Commission’ in 1994.
Prof. Ghulam Azam: A section of people did do it, but they never used the term ‘war criminal’.
Question: It was a symbolic trial, and then on 26th March 1992 in Surhwardy Uddyan …..
Prof. Ghulam Azam: The ‘Nirmul Committee’ at that time called Jamaat-e-Islami as ‘killers’; they sometimes called them ‘Razakar’ and sometimes ‘anti-independent forces’.
Question: Sir, the trial now is called ‘Crimes against Humanity’, i.e., to try against those crimes that are against humanity.
Prof. Ghulam Azam: Yes, they are. They are calling crimes against humanity as war crimes. They are using two terminologies and they are doing the trial on the same law that had been passed for war crimes.
Question: Sir, yesterday they brought 52 charges against you and said that there are more than a hundred incidents involving you. What is your comment on these?
Prof. Ghulam Azam: My comment is that not even one of these are accusations – they are all defamations, slander. They have made these allegations, so I will say in court – they’ll have to take me to the court – where I’ll ask them to prove any one of them. I challenge them – they can’t prove even a single one of these allegations inshallah. They may unnecessarily defame me in the name of accusations, but what will happen to these if they can’t prove them? I am sure that they can’t prove any of them.
Question: They say that four days after ‘Operation Searchlight’ on 25th March, you and some other people under your leadership met with Tikka Khan on 4th April.
Prof Ghulam Azam: It was under Mr Nurul Amin’s leadership, not mine, along with Nizam-e- Islam party, Muslim League etc. We met him and said, “the behaviour on 25th March, the way public had been killed… if you continue like this then you won’t get public support, why did you do that?” He said, “The way the revolts were taking place, there was no alternative left to us but this.” At that time the whole Nayabazar was burnt – the wooden shops that were there. I don’t know if those shops are still there or not. They had burnt all of them. They also fired shells, one of which hit my house. Anyway, we told him, “If the army comes on the street they always do extreme things. If the army of the country takes extreme measures against its people, then where will the public go? They will obviously go to the politicians. As elected MPs of Awami League have left the country and gone to India, now they come to us. What shall we do with them? We want that opportunity, please give us that chance, that if anyone comes to us with complaints, we can refer them to you so that the problems can be solved.” Brigadier Rao Forman Ali was present there who was based in the Governor’s House. As Tikka Khan was the Governor and Chief Martial Law Administrator, he was based in the cantonment. We went there to meet him. He (Tikka Khan) immediately ordered Forman Ali, “Give them all important telephone numbers so that they can contact us and complain”. This is why the ‘Peace Committee’ was formed and this was the work of the peace committee. And I saved many people, some of them from jeeps. One of them is still alive – Saifuddin (at this time someone informed him that he was really dead) – has he died? I was having lunch when his wife was crying at the veranda. What happened? She said that her husband had been captured by the army. I took his particulars from her. Rao Forman Ali had told me that Brig Kashem is based in the Circuit House where we can file our complaints. I called him (Brig Kashem). After that, probably two days later, “Surjo Miah” (this was his nick name) came to my house. I asked him, “How did you come?” He said, “They brought me in an army car near the Circuit House and kicked me out of the car saying, ‘someone called Ghulam Azam recommended in your favour, so go’ then he kicked me out of the car. I lost my consciousness, but when I regained my sense, I took a rickshaw and came straight to your house”. This is how I tried to help people as much as I could. I had heard complaints that those who were from Muslim League, Nizaam-e-Islam or Democratic Party made some money through these complaints. They helped people, but made some money as well, but we could not do such things. This is how we had not much scope to do anything. Where was the scope of helping the army? The army works through arms, how could we help them? Then when we did say things against them, they were never allowed to be published.
Two days after 25th March, probably similar type of killing took place in Keraniganj – no, it was a few days later. I heard the day after we had met Tikka Khan that even some of our people were killed in Keraniganj. I called Tikka Khan and said, “You had promised that this won’t happen again, but see what happened in Keraniganj”. He said, “We had complaints that those who revolted against us took shelter in Keraniganj, so we did it”. I said, “You did it again, but innocent people died. Those who you consider as rebels have fled to India, so only innocent people have been killed”. This is how I tried to help as much as I could.
14th August was Pakistan’s independence day. On 14th August there was a public meeting with Mr Nurul Amin in the chair. A couple of people spoke before me. Then I complained in my speech, “The types of things this army is doing are making people anti-Pakistan. They claim that they are working for united Pakistan, but their activities are leading to the break up of Pakistan. I can’t see how Pakistan can remain united.” Those who gave speeches after me all spoke in the same tone. However, these were never reported in the news because newspapers were censored at that time.
Question: Then you had your own newspaper – Sangram.
Prof Ghulam Azam: All newspapers were censored. Newspapers didn’t have the power to publish independent news. They could only publish those that were left after censorship. I said all these in meetings at Baitul Mokarram, but none of them were published.
Question: Do you want to say that whatever was published in your name during that time was wrong and the press were compelled to publish fabricated news?
Prof Ghulam Azam: I can’t say whether they were forced to publish fabricated news, but I can say that our speeches were not allowed to be published. Anything that went against them was not allowed to be published.
Question: Was that applicable to all newspapers including Sangram?
Prof Ghulam Azam: All newspapers
Question: They have raised the issue of war crimes, because after the last election they realized that they will never come to power as long as Islamic parties, particularly Jamaat work together with BNP. How do you find this approach as a whole – the current process of trial?
Prof Ghulam Azam: The process is nothing but a conspiracy for Awami League to remain in power. It is their conspiracy to ensure that their opposition does not win in future elections. This is the reason why they have abolished the caretaker system, and it is the same reason they are doing this.
Question: If you could say what role you played during the nine months of liberation war.
Prof Ghulam Azam: As I have said, I tried to help people as much as I could. I could not take rest, because people kept on coming to my house. I developed some heart problem, so doctor said that as I was over 40, I should take at least an hour’s rest after lunch. If that was not possible, then at least I should lie down for some time. But I couldn’t even find time to lie down.
Question: Sir, in yesterday’s accusations against you, they said that the Peace Committee formed Razakar, Al-Badr and Al-Shams.
Prof Ghulam Azam: No, the Peace Committee did not form them. They were formed by the government. As we now have auxiliary forces like Ansar, they formed these forces as auxiliary forces to support the police. Those who are called UNO now were known as Circle Officer then. They recruited people into these forces through public announcements by drumming on the streets with the help of the Circle Officers and Chairmen of the union boards. All types of people joined them, because they would get some money – unemployed, particularly all unemployed youths joined. Where would they get so many police personnel? Every bridge had to be guarded as the freedom fighters used to blow up bridges. If they blew up bridges, then the army would later burn the village. That is why they used the Razakars to guard the bridges. They were used to guard radio and television stations, because where would they find so much police force? As Ansar is now an auxiliary force of the police, they established a similar force then.
Question: Next Wednesday will be the 40th anniversary of the killing of intellectuals. The accusations that have been made against you blame you for the killings that took place during the liberation war around the country, because you were the Ameer (President) of Jamaat-e-Islami.
Prof Ghulam Azam: As if we were in the government! I was leading the government! What did the Pakistan army do then? Did the Pakistan army work under my command?
Question: They say that they (Pakistan army) worked with your cooperation and guidance.
Prof Ghulam Azam: Let them prove this. It is their responsibility to prove it.
Question: Did you ever feel that your activities during the liberation war were wrong?
Prof Ghulam Azam: No, I did not do anything that I feel I shouldn’t have done.
Question: Sir, it is not that. The fact is many people say many things about your role in ’71. Many people talk about a lot of things that we, the present generation don’t know. What would you say about yourself from your own perspective?
Prof Ghulam Azam: I have already told you that we had no power to do anything. People used to come to us complaining about the army, and we helped them as much as our ability allowed us to do so.
Question: Sir, they also say that you had direct role in the killings during the liberation war including the killing of intellectuals.
Prof Ghulam Azam: Strange! Why are they saying these after so long? They could have said these when they came to power (after 1971). Why do they feel so after so many years? What is the answer to this question? Why do they feel this after so many years?
Question: The investigation officer submitted this report – accusations – after a long investigation.
Prof Ghulam Azam: The investigating agency has been formed by their own people, and they are making their own people give false witnesses. They are making some people responsible for deeds entirely out of speculation. They cannot prove any one of them in the court.
Question: Another question, yesterday’s accusations say that you were involved in several activities in Dhaka during the liberation war; you made press conferences. You spoke in press conferences in places like Karachi and Rawalpindi where you termed freedom fighters as ‘separatists’, ‘Indian agents’, ‘intruders’ etc. All these are mentioned in the submission of the prosecutors on Monday.
Prof Ghulam Azam: Let them prove it! I challenge them to prove it.
Question: They also say that you went to the training camps of Razakar, Al-Badr and Al-Shams forces during that time where you … in a September incident in Mohammadpur, which you saw, then …
Prof Ghulam Azam: I only went to one place to tell them that if you kill innocent people, then you won’t get Allah’s help. When I spoke with anyone in the Pakistan army, I asked them not to torture general public, innocent people, similarly I said these to them (Razakars). I went there once, only one day. Not any more.
Question: Another thing is said that you went to London after the liberation war where you established Pakistan restoration committee, and later in different places, different …
Prof Ghulam Azam: I challenge that everything is a lie – slander!
Question: You allegedly asked different countries in the Middle East not to recognize Bangladesh.
Prof Ghulam Azam: There was one Barrister Abbas from Pabna. He, along with some other Barristers established an East Pakistan government there and invited me to become its minister, I didn’t even reply them.
Question: When was that?
Prof Ghulam Azam: It was around ’74 – 74 or ’75.
Question: Government of Bangabandhu…..
Prof Ghulam Azam: in around ’74 or ’75, among Bangladeshis who were in London, in England, a group of Barristers, advocate …. I remember the name of one person who was its chief, from Pabna, Barrister Abbas. They sent me a letter, I didn’t even reply. What madness? When they were one, it couldn’t be sustained. Now they want to establish an East Pakistan government – I am not in this nonsense!
Question: In that case why weren’t you in the country after victory?
Prof Ghulam Azam: The nation got independent on 16th December. On 20th November, the next day after Ramadan, Ramadan finished, the day after Eid, I went to Lahore to join the Central Working Committee meeting of Jamaat-e-Islami. Jamaat’s headquarter was in Lahore. It was Lahore then, it is Lahore now. After that, I went to see Yahya Khan to say, “You are the President of the country – why don’t you know what’s happening in East Pakistan? You have left everything to Tikka Khan?” Because of this, I had to stay a few days more. In this way, I started on 3rd December on a PIA plane from Karachi – this was PIA’s last flight. From Dhaka it was PIA’s last plane. It was the last plane because on 3rd December Indian Air Force started bombing Dhaka airport, so the airport was closed. So my plane could not land and took refuge in Jeddah. Firstly, because of the relationship with India at that time, planes did not fly over India; Pakistan’s planes used to come through Sri Lanka. We saw from the plane that we crossed Sri Lanka’s coconut garden. It was three hours’ flight from Karachi to there. From there it took three hours to come here. It was six hours’ flight in total. We then saw that the plane landed in Colombo. They didn’t say why they landed there. Then we saw another PIA plane – the one that was going from Dhaka. Both planes stopped there. The plane started to fly again after three hours when the Captain announced that we are not able to go to Karachi or Dhaka – either airport, because the war has started. Both planes were instructed to take refuge to Tehran or Jeddah. When I got down from the plane, I was so emotional that I could perform Umrah, could see the Kaaba! I had dreamt of coming here so many times, but could never do so. The captain was from Bhopal, more than six feet tall. He told me, “I know you, I am involved in Tableeg Jamaat. I have been to Kakrail Mosque.” Anyway, we could go to Tehran, we were ordered to go to Tehran or Jeddah – any one of them. The other plane went to Tehran. I said that if we have the chance of going to Jeddah and perform Umrah, then why should we go to Tehran? This is how my plane went to Jeddah. After that, on 10th December, India and Pakistan agreed on a ceasefire. It was for one day so that foreigners could leave the country. On that day, the 10th, my plane came to Karachi from Jeddah. This is how I came to Pakistan. So, I was saying that my plane could not land on 3rd December, so I went to Jeddah. Then Bangladesh became independent and my communication with the country got lost.
In 1973 the Mujib government cancelled the citizenship of 86 people in three stages. There were 49 people in the first stage including Hamidul Haq Chowdhury, Nurul Amin, Mahmud Ali; my name was also on that list. We had no right to go back to the country as our citizenship was cancelled. Then in January 1976 the Home Ministry declared that those whose citizenship had been cancelled should write directly to the Home Secretary if they want their citizenship to be restored. I wrote, but there was no reply. After that my mother applied…….. they said we can’t give visa for long. I said, give whatever you can, so they gave me one month’s visa. I came with that visa. After coming back, I returned my Pakistani passport saying that I have come back to my own country, to my land of birth. I live in the house, which is in my name; I give municipality tax here, so you can’t throw me out of this country. They tried to throw me out of here. They requested the Pakistan High Commission to take me. They said if he doesn’t want, then why should we?
Question: Sir, during the liberation war, those who now say that pro-liberation and anti-liberation force – what was the real difference between these two forces? Who played what role?
Prof Ghulam Azam: They had conflict with razakars, because they used to guard and they (freedom fighters) used to attack. We had no scope to play any role there. As I said, if there was a complaint, we had nothing else to do but to lobby about those complaints.
Question: You said that… the accusations that have been submitted against you on Monday, are you repentant for your role in the liberation war on that basis? Is there anything to seek forgiveness to the nation?
Prof Ghulam Azam: See, why couldn’t we take part in the liberation war? If…. After the birth of Pakistan the way India treated us, there was no way we could consider India as our friend. When the representatives of Bangladesh, the Awami League leaders went to India and urged Indira Gandhi to help us to become independent, we became seriously concerned. India won’t come to make us independent; they will come for their own interest. They came for their own benefit. What is that benefit? The first benefit is to make their archenemy Pakistan weaker. If they could make East Pakistan separated from Pakistan, then Pakistan would be weaker. Secondly, Pakistan was outside India, but we were inside their ‘belly’. India is around us, even the Bay of Bengal in the South is under their control; the Andaman-Nicobar islands are theirs. If we became independent, then we would not be able to maintain our independence; we would be forced to accept India’s aggression. India had three benefits – firstly to make Pakistan weaker, to take the advantage of controlling us, and to make the majority area in Pakistan as their own market for trade. They did not come for our independence. The way they treated us after independence, does it prove that they want our independence? They are killing our people in the border like birds; the people are protesting, but the government doesn’t protest.
Question: Are you repentant for your role in the liberation war as mentioned in the accusations?
Prof Ghulam Azam: I have already said that these are not accusations, but defamations. They cannot prove any accusation against me that I did anything against humanity, or have done any crime for which I need to seek forgiveness to the people. They won’t find anything. They can only harass. In fact they have already decided what the judgment will be. This is nothing but a farce trial, acting in the name of trial. Didn’t the Jute Minister say a few days ago that there is no need for any trial, just hang them? Didn’t he say that?
Question: The last question sir, Maghrib Azan is imminent. We heard that, everyone expects that or you have probably understood that you may be arrested. Are you mentally ready for arrest?
Prof Ghulam Azam: I have been arrested many times in my life. And a devoted Muslim does not fear death. If I am killed without any fault of my own, then I will get the status of a ‘martyr’. As a worker of the Islamic movement, I seek martyrdom, so what should I fear? It is not permissible to fear anyone other than Allah. We are not allowed to fear anyone but Allah.
The judge for the International Crimes Tribunal directed the prosecution to resubmit charges against Professor Ghulam Azam by January 5. His chief counsel Abdur Razzak told reporters that the prosecutors failed to submit the formal charges according to legal procedures. This is despite having investigated the allegations against him for more than two years.
Ghulam Azam has spoken frankly to reporters this week from television channels and newspapers denying all charges against him. His robust denial of charges and detailed account of events during 1971 have given credence to his statements whereas the prosecution case has been diminished by their inability to present the case in the correct manner.
BEHIND a huge bulletproof screen sit judges, lawyers and three wizened former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In their 80s, the defendants may be the last people to be prosecuted over the deaths of at least 1.7m people in 1975-79, when the Khmer Rouge exercised monstrous power in Cambodia. Gawped at daily by busloads of onlookers—monks, black-clad teenagers, turbaned villagers, earnest foreigners—the men can expect to pass much of the rest of their lives in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a hybrid local and United Nations creation that sits just outside the capital, Phnom Penh.
The tribunal has an impossible job. The crimes in its ambit are too many and various for more than symbolic justice to be seen to be done. Set up in 2003 and now costing $40m a year, it has so far managed a single conviction, of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who ran the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, where 14,000 entered and only a dozen came out. Though a monster, he was a relatively low-ranking one, with a degree of remorse.
On November 21st prosecutors opened the case against the three defendants in “case 002” (numbered as if hundreds more were expected). The three are Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two” and Pol Pot’s right-hand man; Ieng Sary, the Khmer foreign minister; and Khieu Samphan, who was once head of state. Despite mounds of evidence, convicting them will be agonisingly complicated. The charges, including war crimes, torture and genocide against minorities, are cumbersome. To make things easier, the court is breaking the trials into pieces, starting with a case over the forced removal of city dwellers to the countryside in 1975. But the case could take years, and the three may never get to answer the graver charges.
Then there is political meddling and incompetence. No case 003 seems likely. That looks suspiciously convenient for Cambodia’s current rulers and their cronies, anxious to avoid close scrutiny of their parts in the killing fields. Court officials have resigned amid fierce public feuding, some between locals and foreigners. Critics say that some judges look partial or corrupt, so the court’s credibility is at stake. Relatives of some victims are boycotting the court, and donors look twitchy.
Still, the proceedings’ integrity is still just about intact. The same cannot be said for Asia’s other current war-crimes trial, in Bangladesh. In 1971 several hundred thousand or more (mostly civilians) perished at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and local accomplices losing the bloody fight against secession. On November 20th the first defendant at the country’s International War Crimes Tribunal, Delawar Hossain Sayadee, was charged with genocide, murder, rape, arson, abduction and torture. Mr Sayadee is a leader of a prominent Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Six opposition figures will probably join him in the dock.
The tribunal could have been laudable. This was a horrific spell of history, and justice might have helped reconciliation. Instead, it risks being a travesty. The prosecutions look biased. One defence lawyer talks of a “climate of vendetta” against opponents of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. None of the chief perpetrators, Pakistani soldiers, will be in court. Nor will pro-independence militants be charged over smaller but still gruesome massacres of Biharis, migrants who sympathised with Pakistan.
The defendants seem to have been made targets because of their political role today as much as for earlier wrongs. Jamaat is an ally of the main opposition; some of the accused were ministers in Bangladesh’s previous government. Should they be convicted and hanged in time for the next election, that would handily weaken the opposition. Yet a nakedly partisan trial would only deepen historical wounds, not salve them.
Outsiders, including the American government who once advised the court, look increasingly wary. Human Rights Watch says that witnesses and lawyers are being harassed, and defence lawyers lack time to prepare. Lawyers are blocked from challenging the judges’ impartiality. They say that the tribunal chairman should go, because he presided over an earlier investigation and mock trial in 1994, which condemned the accused as war criminals. They complain, too, that foreign lawyers, in theory allowed in the “international” court, are in effect barred. As a consequence of these problems, says a British lawyer, the trial “lacks even the appearance of independence or impartiality”. Journalists attempting to report as much have been intimidated.
Rule by strongmen, not by law
Asia seems unable to follow Europe, Africa or South America in setting up either strong tribunals or truth commissions, such as South Africa’s, to address old horrors. Nor will it deal with recent ones. In Sri Lanka much evidence suggests war crimes against civilians took place in 2009, as the civil war against the brutal Tamil Tigers reached a final climax. On November 20th commissioners who had led a public inquiry into “lessons learnt” from the war handed the government their report. Yet the government refuses an inquiry into those final days. Even raising the matter is risky. A UN report this year on the topic caused a bitter diplomatic row. On November 18th the ex-army chief, Sarath Fonseka, a jailed political rival of the ruling Rajapaksa family, got a new three-year prison term for suggesting that political leaders ordered rebel prisoners to be shot.
Asia pays a price for failing to secure justice over war crimes. Gary Bass of Princeton University argues that well-run trials bring real benefits. They help address “living wounds” that linger for decades after genocides, encouraging reconciliation, for example, by naming individuals, not whole groups, as guilty of particular wicked acts. More generally, they encourage respect for the law and impartial institutions. Sadly, for large parts of Asia with weak democracy and illiberal strongmen in charge, the chances of a fair reckoning for vile crimes are slender indeed.
by Steven Kay QC
The Trial of Sayedee at the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal has started, with the Defence challenging the impartiality of the process because The Chairman of the panel of Judges has been discovered as being a participant within one of the Prosecution’s key exhibits in the trial: a report written in 1994 identifying war criminals and collaborators of the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971.
The Report dated 26 March 1994 on the Findings of the People’s Inquiry Commission on the Activities of the War Criminals and the Collaborators in the Bangladesh War of Liberation of 1971 reveals the following:
1. The identification of the Chairman of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal Judge Nizamul Huq Nasim as a lawyer at the time of the Secretariat of the People’s Commission, listed in Appendix B;
2. That the accused of the current trial before the ICT, Sayedee, is named by the People’s Commission in the same Report as a war criminal and is accused of many murders and other crimes in the 1971 liberation war;
3. The Report states: “A 40 member Secretariat consisting mainly of lawyers, journalists and writers was formed to assist the Commission with its task” which was the investigation of the crimes for the People’s Inquiry and “The Commission analysed all the evidence gathered by members of the Secretariat.”
The Defence for Sayedee last week challenged the position of the Judge in the trial and requested his recusal. This was refused and no reasons for the decision of the ICT were issued. Instead, the international lawyers including the author of this blog (Steven Kay QC) who advised the Judge of his conflict of interest by letter, which was distributed to the media, have been reported to the Bar Standards Board! This is an obvious attempt to silence criticism, which a reasoned judgment might have been able to achieve if the Judge had a defensible position. Of course, this Tribunal is rigged so that normal constitutional rights which would entitle a Bangladeshi citizen to appeal to the High Court to challenge such a fundamental decision as to the fairness of the trial have been denied by constitutional amendments.
The Chairman of the Bangladesh ICT has a visible and apparent interest and bias in these proceedings, of such a substantial nature he should be disqualified by his fellow Judges “who left it to his good conscience” or by his own decision from acting as a Judge in the ICT.
The principle: “Justice must not only be done it must be seen to be done” applies to all jurisdictions.
After 40 years, the Bangladesh government is hosting an International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT). These trials are aimed at individuals who allegedly committed war crimes during the brutal nine-month civil war that rocked the country and culminated in its formation in 1971. This has been controversial in numerous ways, from being conducted by a country wholly inexperienced in dealing with such legal proceedings to the serious criticisms from international lawyers. Many consider the trial, a prominent feature in the election campaign of the party conducting it, a theatrical act of political revenge.
The War Crimes Tribunal could have been an exemplary step towards justice following the considerable loss of life, property and human dignity in the 1971 war. However, the tribunal risks turning into a mockery of justice as it is overshadowed by what one defence lawyer described as a ‘climate of vendetta’, as well as reports by Human Rights Watch of reporting harassment of the defence. The recent visit by Stephen J Rapp, the US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes, generated considerable controversy. Following the ICT spokesman’s expression of satisfaction with the current proceedings, Mr. Rapp called a press conference where he categorically expressed his disappointment at the Bangladesh Government’s reluctance to implement a series of his recommendations. He demanded that the trial be fair, transparent and that the proceedings are either broadcast live or witnessed by independent observers; the presiding Awami League (AL) government has shown telling reluctance in these matters.
The ICT is but one element of many controversies that tarnish Prime Minister Hasina Wajed’s government. The League seems to have a passion for creating unnecessary disruption, taking one troubling decision after another, bitterly dividing the country. The reverberations of these political misjudgements are also felt within the Bengali diaspora abroad, including in Britain.
On November 29th the parliament, due to the clout of its unprecedented government majority (87%), passed a highly controversial bill to divide the capital, Dhaka, into two administrative regions – Dhaka South and North. This major historic bill was only tabled that week, yet it took mere minutes to pass. The current Mayor of Dhaka is a prominent leader of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). By dividing the capital into two regions, the current elected Dhaka Municipal Corporation structure will be annulled, along with the Mayor and elected Commissioners, most of whom are also from the nationalist party. The government then, as per law, will appoint an interim Mayor and Commissioners for both regions with members of their own party, and can then stage a new election to secure their own members in the relevant positions. It would appear the AL is unashamedly abusing its absolute majority in parliament – a majority brought about by a dubious election – by passing a steady stream of controversial, legally questionable, and self-serving bills.
The Nationalists have harshly condemned the government, asserting they will challenge any attempt to implement the bill, while others have criticised it as unconstitutional. The Dhaka Municipality Workers Union has staged a sit-in protest, which was attacked by police, injuring many protestors. Nonetheless, the Union leaders declared that they are willing to die rather than let this decision be implemented. Such brutal actions have fuelled anger and mistrust and have given rise to violence in response to what appears a callous desire for overwhelming domination on the part of the government. Yet in their carelessness, they have merely encouraged their own weakening and potential downfall. The Nationalist leader Khaleda Zia’s anti-government ‘Road March’ campaign is gaining momentum by the day, in spite of violent attacks, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers. Enormous crowds flocked to her public meetings where she has spoken against the government and vowed to bring it down with a mass uprising.
In a similarly controversial move, earlier this year, the AL-led government passed a bill to overturn a 15 year old system that entailed a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee general elections. The system, established in the mid-90s, was designed to prevent fraud and rigged elections. While Hasina Wajed claimed the move would consolidate the nation as a democracy, many have regarded her actions as politically motivated, designed to secure her party’s place in power. Opposition figures have been particularly damning of the move, with the Nationalists boycotting the vote for amendment by the legislature.
Through its modes of governance and decisions, the AL-led government of Bangladesh has created one problem after another. The flawed ICT spells another step in the wrong direction. In increasingly ridiculous developments, AL MP Shawkat Momen Shahjahan, recently accused one of the most well known and senior commanders of the liberation war, Kader Siddiqui, of being a war criminal and demanded that he should be tried under the ICT. The claim was laughable as Kader Siddiqui, nicknamed Bagha (Tiger) Siddiqui for the ferociousness of his force in 1971, is the only civilian recipient of the gallantry award for his role in the liberation war. Surprisingly, no AL leader condemned this MP for the allegation, damaging the public image of the AL leadership.
However, the ludicrous accusation, combined with the telling silence, is perhaps unsurprising. Mr. Siddiqui joined the opposition alliance with his party, Krishak Sramik Janata League, and is one of the fiercest critics of the ruling Government, writing a regular column in the Bengali daily, Doinik Naya Diganta, where he harshly critiques the government and its leadership. Additionally, he speaks at all ‘Road March’ meetings of Khaleda Zia. It would seem that the ‘War Criminal’ cry is in fact part of a wider witch hunt of political opposition, initiated by the government under the banner of a so-called tribunal.
The ruling AL government of Bangladesh, led by the indefatigable Hasina Wajed, has certainly got its hands full. Yet none can be blamed but themselves, as they tumble down a reckless course of violently reactionary politics, from the veritable witch hunt of the ICT to the abuse of their position in parliament. The outcome may be disastrous, as precedent shows.
In August of 1975, following a rule that began democratic but later became an autocratic one-party establishment, the Premier’s father, President Mujib, was assassinated with almost all of his family members in a coup led by the army. This was followed by a further coup and counter coup by different factions of the army in November 1975 that resulted in the killing of dozens of senior political leaders. Many were jailed, including the top four senior AL leaders who were killed in jail, and dozens of senior army officers, including liberation war commander and decorated war hero Brig. Gen. Khaled Mosharraf. In May 1981, President Zia was assassinated, again in a coup led by an army general, followed by a brief coup and counter coup that resulted in the killing of a number of senior army officers. A dozen further officers were hanged for their alleged involvement in Zia’s murder, although the trial process, like the ICT, was questionable. More recently, the AL-led government conducted a dubious trial for President Mujib’s murder, hanging a number of former senior army officers, some of whom were also leaders of opposition political parties.
The cycle of political retribution and violence is no stranger to this young country, yet its leaders appear unwilling to learn. With the ICT trials targeting only political opponents under the cover of a flawed legal process, the AL Government is in danger of repeating a pattern that has been going on for over 36 years. Unfortunately, political vengeance is a recurrent presence in Bangladesh. Should the fires be stoked any further, the danger of a civil confrontation draws ever nearer. Hasina’s government would do well to steer clear of the paths taken by her predecessors, for the good of her party and her country. As it stands, her decisions paint a road map for political disaster.
This is an excerpt from Professor Ghulam Azam’s Autobiography relating to allegations of collaborating with the Pakistani army. He states that he made representations to the Army to convince them to stop the atrocities.
EXTRACTS FROM MY AUTO-BIOGRAPHY (JIBONEY JA DEKHLAM)
(Volume-3; Pages 137 to 140)
Since the crackdown on 25th March 1971 by the Pakistan Army, I was getting increasingly concerned with the way things were unfolding. About a week after the crackdown, on 3rd April, my friend and the then Secretary General of Nezam-e-Islami Party [former DUCSU VP], Moulvi Farid Ahmad, came to discuss about the situation with me. He informed me that he has already had a meeting on the previous night with Mr Nurul Amin of Pakistan Democratic Party and Mr Khawaja Khairuddin of Muslim League, and they all decided to go to General Tikka Khan to convince him that military actions and atrocities must stop to prevent repercussion amongst the people. I could sense from his talk that the General was keen to discuss and seek our advice. I was not comfortable with the situation because when Pakistan Govt planned and conducted the military operations, they never consulted. They want to discuss now, because they have realized that, to remain in power it is essential for them to keep the political parties in confidence. From that realization, I was initially unwilling to go to meet the General. However, I promised to discuss with my party leaders on his proposal. Later that day, I conferred with Jamaat leaders and decided to go. I also made up my mind what to say during our meeting.
The meeting was scheduled at the General’s office, on 4th April at10 am. I was keen to ask why they resorted to military means to keepPakistan united instead of political means, whenPakistan was created as a result of political consensus.
On 4th April, we all assembled at Mr Nurul Amin’s house and started together for the General’s Cantonment office. He warmly greeted us and started saying, without any introduction, “There has been no govt in Dhaka for last one month. Although Martial Law has not been lifted, we are unable to enforce law. President has ordered me to establish law and order situation. You are people’s leaders. You may advise people to help us in maintaining law and order situation.” No one responded to his remarks. At this time, although I was the youngest, I started, “General, if the election results were duly honoured, law and order would have been fine”. He instantly replied, “Tell that to the President. I am unable to say anything on political matters”. I asked him, “Was it essential to burn properties worth crores of taka for restoration of law and order situation”? He tried to justify their atrocities showing the activities of unruly mob during the preceding days. I even asked him why they killed students inside their hall compound, to which he said, they had reports of presence of armed rebels there.
Our meeting with Tikka Khan was followed by discussion with Brigadier Rao Forman Ali, who was also present in the meeting. Rao Forman Ali said, “We think people voted for Awami League to get their rights, and not to separate from Pakistan. We don’t think people consider India to be their friend. Awami League will now seek India’s help for separation. But, that will make the people Indian slaves. We are unable to make this point clear to the people.” He requested us to convey this message through radio speech. Mr Nurul Amin and other two agreed to give speech, but I declined. They were taken to a different room for recording their speech. Taking this opportunity, I talked to Mr Rao confidentially and told him that, “Your points are logical. But, why such a situation has been created? If the President had taken steps to solve the situation politically soon after the election, this crisis would not have erupted.” I continued, “If the President had compromised with Mr Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, things would have been normal. People may not be influenced by the speech of the political leaders whom they have not elected.” I also reminded him that, “Political problems cannot be solved militarily”. Mr Rao remained silent all through. With no response from his side, I stopped any further discussion.
This letter was written by Professor Ghulam Azam in response to a defamatory article published by The Daily Star on 2nd November 2011.
Janab Mahfuz Anam
The Daily Star.
Rejoinder: Protest Against A Report Published in Your Paper Dated 2nd November 2011
Assalamu Alaikum Warahmatullah.
A news item has been published in the 2nd November issue (page-1) of your paper in which it is alleged that I took part in the planning of crackdown by the Pakistan Army on 25th March 1971 in Dhaka. The source of this news is a member of the prosecution team which is dealing with ‘war crimes’ cases. In that news, there are a number of allegations against me. All these allegations are baseless, concocted and manufactured. The prosecution team shall never be able to produce any evidence in favour of any of those allegations.
As regards to my meeting with General Tikka Khan, the prosecution team has no direct knowledge. Their statement in this regard is sheer conjecture. It is true that I along with three other party leaders went to see the General. The purpose was purely to prevent further army atrocities and seek their assistance to help the victims, in absence of people’s representatives who were in hiding at that time. In this context, I enclose photocopy of 4 pages (in Bangla) from the 3rd volume of my auto-biography (Jiboney Ja Dekhlam) regarding my visit to General Tikka Khan. English extracts of the relevant portion is also enclosed for your perusal.
May I hope that my rejoinder (including the English extract) protesting the news item will be published in the first page at the appropriate place in your esteemed daily so that the demand of justice is duly fulfilled.
Dated: Dhaka; 9th November 2011. Sincerely Yours,
by Mahin Khan
This year a small delta nation, a land of fertile plains, luscious terrain and a remarkably rich history and heritage, celebrates its 40th birthday. In 1971, following an epic struggle for freedom, dignity and justice, Bangladesh was born.
While the popular narrative of Bengal history tends to begin in the British colonial era of the 18thcentury, a rich history existed for many centuries prior to this. With its wealth of natural resources, Bengal was arguably the most prosperous region of the sub-continent up until it was colonised. In 1757, the East India Company occupied the region, beginning with their victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. This brought a seismic shift in the socio-political and economic state of the region, and within a few decades Bengal became one of the poorest regions in South Asia. This turning point in the country’s history is a significant chapter in the relationship of the Bengali people and Britain; an early chapter on the place of the Bengali Diaspora in Britain today.
The 1947 partition of united India created Pakistan and India. Yet the newly formed Pakistan with its Eastern wing (later, Bangladesh) and Western wing (present day Pakistan) had only begun to experience its birth pangs. Within five years, the Bengali Language Movement began, in response to the refusal by its central government, based in West Pakistan, to recognise Bengali as an official language. In the subsequent years, increasing dissatisfaction towards West Pakistan for its policy of injustice towards its Eastern wing culminated in a tumultuous nine-month war. On 26 March 1971 an independent Bangladesh was finally born and 16 December 1971 saw the signing of the Instrument of Surrender by the Pakistani Army. The valiant language movement was recognised by the international community with the UNESCO declaring 21 of February as ‘International Mother Language Day’. To commemorate those who lost their lives, and to support the many struggling survivors, George Harrison, along with numerous other renowned artists, hosted a charitableConcert for Bangladesh in August 1971.
The new Bangladesh, since 1971, has witnessed many challenges and political upheavals as well as significant developments. From widespread political and bureaucratic corruption, political violence, environmental calamity, poverty and overpopulation to significant progress in literacy and gender parity in education, a vast human resource and remarkable growth in economic development. In December 2005 Goldman Sachs placed Bangladesh on the list of Next Elevenlargest global economies, and in February 2011 Citigroup named Bangladesh as among the Global Growth Generators. In spite of the challenges, over its relatively short life span, the nation has come a long way.
But perhaps one area remains the most challenging of all for Bangladesh – that of its war of birth in 1971. Four decades have passed, yet the war remains an unresolved space, creating conflict both within Bangladesh and the wider diaspora. While 1971 should have become an event to unify Bangladeshis in honouring the birth of their nation, it has become a target of political exploitation by the nation’s dominant political parties. The facts and figures are routinely manipulated such that Bangladesh has no real agreed upon modern history. Indeed little value appears to be given to fact where politics is concerned. The dominant narrative on the war is dependent on the political party in power, and is set to be rewritten and fiercely protected by the next government. The destabilising effects of this narrative have been palpable for these 40 years; a nation incapable of agreeing on the very roots of its conception will find securing its identity, stability and progress a challenge. While 1971 released the nation from a partnership that was too often imbalanced and unjust, it is now against the exploitative and destabilising bounds of this contentious debate that the nation requires liberty.
While the facts remain unverified and unreliable the hope for closure for the victims and the nation remains remote. Those seeking political appropriation of the war insist on dragging out and misusing a memory, rather than permitting the sufferers to come to terms with it and move on. To allow closure is to stopper the exploitation of this period, hence this is resisted. At the other end are those who resist acknowledging that the suffering has not concluded, that many still need to come to terms with the memories and gain justice, and that things cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. If crimes have been committed, they must be faced and addressed, not avoided.
The primary point of contest remains in the details. While the current leading Awami League (AL) led government in Bangladesh routinely propagate the three million deaths figure, viable testimonyremains to the contrary and is conveniently disregarded. That a great many suffered and died is undeniable and must be addressed, but to stubbornly tamper with the facts is to dishonour the victims. In the name of seeking truth, but with all indications of exacting revenge, the government has established an International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to try those they accuse of war crimes, decades after a general amnesty had been granted by Bangladesh’s founding President, Mujibur Rahman. Claiming to want to try those who committed crimes, the ICT is neither attempting nor can aspire to try the most glaring culprits from the period: the West Pakistan army officials. Instead, all cases are being directed towards accused Bangladeshis, most of whom, significantly, sit in the camps of the political opposition to the ruling party. It would appear the ICT, bearing little sign of ‘international’ standards, has all signs of being another means of silencing political opposition and securing power than achieving the truth.
The injustice of this situation towards the victims of the war is perhaps the greatest tragedy. Rather than securing closure, their realities are routinely appropriated to serve political ends. It is high time that the War was treated with the victims – their cause, suffering and need for a resolution – genuinely at the forefront of the discourse. To be credible and just, the ICT must attain the international standards it claims to uphold and be regulated by an independent body; only then can the facts be verified without the danger of factual corruption. Indeed, such a tribunal should be held at the UN’s International Court of Justice, rather than in a young country wholly inexperienced in such procedures and under a government with a strong bias in the matter. Justice must be attained through justice.
Bangladesh is at a cross-road where the truth of the past frequently clashes with the propaganda of the present. Political conflicts are genuinely hindering the progress of the nation. Both those within Bangladesh and its diaspora, even in Britain, suffer from partisan clashes over the war. The social divisions created are another sad and long-standing product of this unresolved conflict. It is high time members across Bengali society were able to come together to discuss this single most significant event in the modern history of the nation in a mature and balanced manner. Indeed Bangladesh’s progress depends upon it – the future cannot be built in the absence of the past.