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Article: Bangladesh A road map for political disaster

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Far from being reconciliatory, the government’s International War Crimes Tribunal is tantamount to a witch hunt of the opposition.
About the author
Mahin Khan resides in England and is an avid follower of British and Bangladeshi politics.

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.

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