Bangladesh war crimes trials reopen old wounds

Published: February 14, 2013

Social activists stand in silence and raise their hands at a key intersection in central Dhaka on February 12, 2013 in protest, demanding swift execution of war criminals. PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA: When Ranajit Rinku heard the “Butcher of Mirpur” had been jailed for life for mass murder during Bangladesh’s 1971 war, he couldn’t believe a man with so much blood on his hands could escape the gallows.

Like most Bangladeshis, Rinku had been taught that the nine-month conflict was one of the deadliest in history, with an estimated three million people killed.

After Bangladesh’s domestic war crimes tribunal ruled on February 5 that Abdul Quader Molla, a top official in the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was responsible for more than 350 killings in a Dhaka suburb, opposition parties decried the verdict as a travesty of justice designed to settle scores.

But Rinku focused his outrage on what he saw as the leniency of the sentence – no matter that the 31-year-old was not even born when the war broke out in March, 1971.

So he decided to head to an intersection in downtown Dhaka where hundreds of thousands of his fellow Bangladeshis have been staging round-the-clock protests with the single demand: that Molla and his fellow defendants be hanged.

“I have slept only 20 hours in the last eight days. We won’t stop protesting unless all the collaborators are hanged,” Rinku said.

The parents of Rinku, a member of Bangladesh’s minority Hindu community, had to flee their village in northern Rangpur district in 1971 after it was attacked.

“So many people died at the hands of these killers yet there was no justice for the last 42 years. Our leaders have compromised with these killers and rehabilitated them. It’s our last chance to wipe out this shame,” he said.

Similar reactions have been seen throughout Bangladesh after the court started delivering their verdicts on 12 alleged war criminals last month.

The protests in Dhaka have drawn poets, academics, singers, journalists, war veterans and even members of the national cricket team.

The demonstrators have renamed Shahbag intersection New Generation Roundabout, comparing it to Tahrir Square, the cradle of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

The legacy of the nine-month war has defined much of Bangladesh’s post-independence politics but successive governments including the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman failed to bring the war criminals to book.

Sheikh Mujib, the father of current premier Sheikh Hasina, briefly outlawed Jamaat in the 1970s.

But after his assassination in 1975, the ban was lifted by a military regime led by the husband of Hasina’s main rival Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

The scale of the carnage is the subject of huge dispute.

The government says three million were killed but independent estimates put the figure much lower, between 300,000 and 500,000.

Many Bangladeshis believe the current Jamaat leadership was behind the militias responsible for the killings of professors, doctors and journalists.

Both Jamaat and BNP say the charges are bogus while international rights groups have found gaping holes in the war crimes laws and the proceedings.

The International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic set-up with no international oversight, has also been dogged by controversy ever since its creation in 2010.

Leaked internet calls point to collusion between a presiding judge, the prosecution and government. A key defence witness was allegedly abducted by plainclothed police outside the court.

But protesters dismiss such criticism.

“Young people have had enough of these conspiracies,” said Imran Sarker, a protest organiser. “They have finally taken control to oversee the end of these collaborators.”

Critics regard the demonstrations as having been orchestrated by the government to mask its shortcomings, including a series of high-profile graft scandals, ahead of elections due next January.

But Shahdeen Malik, a Dhaka-based commentator, said it was a mistake to underestimate the pent-up anger of a younger generation.

“I don’t think the government has a role here. There are people of every hue and colour in the protests, including even BNP supporters,” he told AFP.

“They have all become united under one issue: stern punishment for war criminals,” he added, comparing the protests to recent mass protests in India after a deadly gang-rape.

Reader Comments (9)

  • Az
    Feb 14, 2013 - 8:01PM

    Jamaat did not just oppose the independence of Bangladesh, it actively took part in atrocities and genocide. Its militias terrorized cities, towns and villages- anyone suspected of helping the Mukti Bahini or Bengali nationalists, were rounded up, tortured, raped or murdered. They forced Hindus, Buddhists and Christians to covert to Islam. They delivered women to the cantonments for slavery. And in one of the most gruesome atrocities of the war, they wiped out a large section, including some of the best, of Bengali intellectuals.

    If the Khmer Rouge or the Nazis cannot have any place in democracies, than neither should Jamaat in Bangladesh. Period.


  • Lala Gee
    Feb 14, 2013 - 8:29PM

    “So he decided to head to an intersection in downtown Dhaka where hundreds of thousands of his fellow Bangladeshis have been staging round-the-clock protests”

    Never saw such an exaggeration in a news story when a small gathering of less than hundred people was reported as “hundreds of thousands”. Even the intersections total capacity would be less than 200.

    “Like most Bangladeshis, Rinku had been taught that the nine-month conflict was one of the deadliest in history, with an estimated three million people killed.”

    Where are the graves of those 3 million people killed?

    “Abdul Quader Molla, a top official in the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was responsible for more than 350 killings in a Dhaka suburb

    Why don’t I see his name in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’?


  • Arman
    Feb 15, 2013 - 12:21AM

    @Lala Gee The Guinness Book of World Records lists the Bangladesh atrocities as one of the top five genocides of the 20th century. You pathetically ask about graves, there are more than a thousand mass graves in Bangladesh, and more are getting discovered over the years.

    And you want to know how many people fit into Shahbagh? Take a look at this and then talk


  • Sk. Adnan Haider
    Feb 15, 2013 - 1:15AM

    @Lala Gee, I dont know where you’re getting your information from but let me tell you you are wrong. i was there at the protests, i saw the amount of people gathered there with my own eyes and their numbers really are in the Lakhs. you don’t have to believe my words. Just look at the photos:
    link text

    link text

    second link is a pic showing protesters holding up candles at shahbag today at 7:00pm and people around the country did the same to show their solidarity with the protesters.


  • Rashed
    Feb 15, 2013 - 1:54AM

    There is an incredible movement going on in Bangladesh against Jamaat and religion-based politics. Pakistan and the Muslim world should take note.


  • Cosmo
    Feb 15, 2013 - 5:33AM

    @Lala Gee:
    Does your comments ever make sense to u?? Seriousely, i have to scratch my head!!!


  • Zalmai
    Feb 16, 2013 - 12:19AM

    @Lala Gee

    Aftaab ba du angusht penhaan na meshawad. In the Dari/Persian language this proverb translates to ‘”two fingers cannot block the sun.” The truth is self evident, the youth of today want justice and Bangladesh boldly confronted its demons by sentencing these monsters.

    Joi Bangla! Bravo Bangladesh!


  • Sandip
    Feb 24, 2013 - 5:22AM

    @Lala Gee: Looks like you were present there to count the numbers. And like much else, got your numbers all mixed up as well, eh?


  • Sandip
    Feb 24, 2013 - 5:28AM

    This trial should be the first step in bringing closure to the 1971 genocide perpetrated in Bangladesh. The next step should be to bring to trial soldiers of the Pakistan Army who were involved in that genocide. It shames me much as an Indian, to look back today and see that those monsters were allowed to get away scott free under some deal or the other. The Bangladesh people should ask this question to the Indian leadership as well as to how they bartered away their duty to bring those monsters to trial.


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