Bangladesh's watershed war crimes moment

An activist shouts slogans as he and others including former freedom fighters who fought against Pakistan in the 1971 war demonstrate outside the International Crimes Tribunal court premises in Dhaka on January 21, 2013. The war crimes trials stir strong emotions in Bangladesh

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The International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has delivered its first verdict, sentencing a former Islamist leader to death for crimes against humanity.

Abul Kalam Azad, a former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty in absentia on eight charges.

Tribunals set up nearly three years ago are trying alleged war crimes committed during the country's independence war against Pakistan in 1971.

The first verdict signals a major triumph for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has made prosecution of 1971 war crimes a key goal of her government.

From the beginning the tribunals have faced internal scepticism, as well international concerns expressed by such groups as Human Rights Watch.

Late last year the tribunal was shaken by newspaper revelations which led to the resignation of the presiding judge of one of the two courts.

Bangladesh independence war, 1971

Soldier
  • Civil war erupts in Pakistan, pitting the West Pakistan army against East Pakistanis demanding autonomy and later independence
  • Fighting forces an estimated 10 million East Pakistani civilians to flee to India
  • In December, India invades East Pakistan in support of the East Pakistani people
  • Pakistani army surrenders at Dhaka and its army of more than 90,000 become Indian prisoners of war
  • East Pakistan becomes the independent country of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971
  • Exact number of people killed is unclear - Bangladesh says it is three million but independent researchers say it is up to 500,000 fatalities

But the government was quick to appoint a new judge, and the tribunals pressed ahead with proceedings, leading to Monday's first verdict.

Watershed moment

Mr Azad, who had gained fame in recent years as a television presenter of Islamic programmes, was accused of murder, rape, torture, arson and looting - mostly against members of the Hindu community in the central district of Faridpur.

He went on the run in April last year and is thought to be in Pakistan.

In 1971, he was a junior leader in Jamaat's student wing and a member of the Razakar Bahini, an auxiliary force set up to help the Pakistan army by rooting out local resistance.

The Razakars were notorious for their operations targeting Hindus as well as civilians suspected of being sympathetic towards Bengali nationalists.

The guilty verdict marks a watershed in Bangladesh's tortuous history, where for 40 years families of victims have campaigned relentlessly to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Bangladesh says up to three million people died during the war, mostly in massacres by the Pakistan army and their local Islamist allies, the Razakar and Al-Badr forces.

Following Indian intervention in December 1971, more than 200 Bengali intellectuals, doctors and engineers were kidnapped and murdered by the shadowy Al-Badr.

Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, is alleged to have been behind the creation of Al-Badr, providing it with leadership, recruits and inspiration.

An elderly refugee walks alongside Indian troops advancing into the East Pakistan (Bangladesh) area during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 An elderly refugee walks alongside Indian troops advancing into East Pakistan (Bangladesh) during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971

Jamaat's leader at the time, Ghulam Azam, is alleged to have inspired the killing of the intellectuals which took place just days before the Pakistan army surrendered to Indian and Bangladeshi forces. He rejects the allegations.

Bangladesh was unable to put on trial Pakistani officers accused of war crimes as they were released as part of a broader peace deal between Delhi and Islamabad.

But the question of their local collaborators and their role in the genocide remained unresolved.

Fractious politics

Since 2011, six top Jamaat leaders, including Ghulam Azam who is now in his nineties, have been in jail, facing various charges of crimes against humanity.

Policemen douse flames during a Jamaat-e-Islami demonstration in Dhaka on 4 December 2012 The Jamaat-e-Islami has regularly protested for the release of its leaders and for the trial to be halted

Most observers in Bangladesh agree that there is widespread public support for the trials, which kicked off in 2010 when the first tribunal was set up.

But the fractious and divisive nature of the country's politics was exposed once again, when major parties failed to close ranks even when dealing with an issue as emotive as trials of war crimes.

While the ruling Awami League has made the trials one of its key goals, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP has been less forthcoming.

The BNP has maintained an electoral alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami since 2001 and many in the party feel the alliance gives them their best chance of returning to power.

But the BNP is unable to oppose the trials.

The war of liberation and what Bangladeshis term "the genocide" of 1971 remain powerful and emotive issues in the public psyche.

The BNP's tactic has been to support the need to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice, with a warning that the trials should not be used against political opponents.

The warning has as much to do with protecting some of its own leaders who may be implicated, as to put Jamaat minds at rest.

One senior BNP leader, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury is already in jail. He denies a number of charges.

Skype 'scandal'

The tribunal itself suffered a set-back last month, when hours of conversation over Skype between one of its presiding judges and a Brussels-based lawyer were revealed in the press.

The exposure came just days before the court was due to deliver the verdict in the trial of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a top Jamaat leader and one of the country's most charismatic and controversial Islamic preachers.

Defence lawyers claimed the judge had acted improperly and the conversation showed the accused could not expect a fair trial.

The judge swiftly resigned, triggering calls for the trial of Mr Sayeedi to be recommenced from the beginning.

The tribunal's new presiding judge rejected the calls for retrial, but agreed to have the two legal teams make their final submissions again.

Monday's verdict goes some way to reassure the public that the trial process has not lost its way.

It is important for both the tribunals and the government to demonstrate such resolve, as the trials have already taken on an international dimension.

Recently, Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote to his Bangladeshi counterpart, calling on him not to put Ghulam Azam to death if he is found guilty.

The letter triggered protests across the country, as many people regarded it as a flagrant interference in Bangladesh's judicial process.

Observers now expect the verdicts in the cases of senior Jamaat-e-Islami leaders such as Mr Sayeedi and Mr Azam to follow rapidly.

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