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.
In Bangladesh: Reconciliation or Revenge?
By JOHN CAMMEGH
Published: November 17, 2011
Over the last 20 years, international criminal justice has developed rapidly, and most people see this as a change for the better. Thanks to the labors, however imperfect, of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and of ad-hoc tribunals from Sierra Leone to Cambodia, it has been established that politicians and warlords who commit terrible crimes against the vulnerable can no longer count on impunity.
But a trial now starting in Bangladesh risks making a mockery of that principle. Indeed, it serves as a terrible warning of the way in which the ideals of universal justice and accountability can be abused. Facing ill-defined charges of crimes against humanity, which carry the death penalty, are five elderly men who lead the country’s Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. (A sixth defendant is a central figure in the Bangladesh National Party, an erstwhile political ally of Jamaat.)
The charges arise from the civil war of 1971 in which the former East Pakistan gained independence as Bangladesh: a savage nine-month conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people died. It is widely accepted that military forces under the command of West Pakistan committed brutal acts of ethnic cleansing, directed at Hindus in particular. But that does not, of course, prove the guilt of a political party, like Jamaat, which opposed independence. To make a considered moral judgement on a conflict that took place 40 years ago, a scrupulously impartial investigation would be needed.
Sadly, the current trial promises to be nothing of the kind. It pretends to be applying universal principles — that is implicit in the name of the court, the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal — but in contrast with other recent ad-hoc tribunals, there is no external input, because none has been allowed.
I was one of three British lawyers whose help was sought by the local defense team. I was retained on behalf of Delwar Hossain Sayedee, Jamaat’s leading cleric, who goes on trial for his life on Sunday. Although I managed to pay one visit to Dhaka last March, where I was tailed by security operatives, neither I nor any other British lawyer has been allowed to participate in the trial or enter Bangladesh while it is happening.
But from any vantage point, certain dire features of the proceedings are clear. The trial is being held under a revived version of the country’s International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973, which was initially presented as South Asia’s answer to the Nuremberg trials — only to be set aside in favor of a general amnesty for all participants in the conflict. In its original form, the 1973 act falls far short of international standards. Government investigators have wide-ranging rights to detain and question, suspects lack the usual rights to information and legal advice. The 1973 act has recently been amended in ways that make matters worse.
Sayedee’s treatment speaks for itself. When he was first questioned, his attending lawyer was forced to “observe” from a room where he could neither see nor hear anything. The questioners regularly broke off their work to inform journalists of the suspect’s supposed “confessions” which were duly sensationalized in the press. When Sayedee was eventually charged, he was again denied access to a lawyer and forced to enter immediate pleas to a series of grave accusations with little precision over place or time. The 1973 act then allows just three weeks, an absurdly short time, for the defense to prepare its case.
In recent days there have been disturbing reports of defense lawyers and witnesses being harassed. As Human Rights Watch has disclosed, one of Sayedee’s main lawyers received a warning to stay away from work, and was told that he might be arrested. Another prominent lawyer and Jamaat supporter faces an arrest warrant in connection with riots in Dhaka in September, even though he was in Europe at the time. Further ominous developments, cited by Human Rights Watch, include the arrest of one key defense witness and the preparation of criminal charges against nine more.
The rules on what sort of evidence is permissible, as laid down by the 1973 act, are at variance with international norms, and with Bangladeshi jurisprudence. Media reports, however biased, are explicitly admitted, with no forensic scrutiny. In the latest alarming development, the court has rejected a petition of recusal against its own chairman, who in 1993 was involved in a contentious enquiry into Jamaat’s alleged liability for atrocities.
The Bangladesh government has made some extravagant claims on behalf of the trial. Kamrul Islam, the state minister for law, said in October that the tribunal would be “exemplary for the world community … working with full independence and complete neutrality.” A fair trial would indeed have been a landmark: the court could have set an example to the developing world, showing how to end impunity while also cementing reconciliation.
But the court prosecutor, Rana Dasgupta, seems not to anticipate any real deliberation by the court. “One can say that 2012 is the year of the verdict of the war crimes trial and 2013 the year of verdict execution,” he has ominously predicted. If he is proved right, the result will smack not of reconciliation but revenge.
John Cammegh is a barrister in chambers at 9 Bedford Row, London. He acted as lead defense counsel for Augustine Gbao, overall security commander of the RUF rebel army, at his war crimes trial at the Special Court of Sierra Leone from 2004 to 2006.