DHAKA, Bangladesh – 41 years on, Bangladesh is trying to confront the traumas that accompanied its birth as a nation. But so far the process of coming to terms with the past is proving anything but simple.
Bangladeshis are watching in suspense as a high-profile trial aims to clarify responsibility for crimes committed during the bloody 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan. The trial, known as the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), is exploring the unsolved killings allegedly committed by militias and political groups that sided with Pakistan during the conflict.
But the resignation of a key judge, the disappearance of a vital witness, and allegations of political meddling have all cast doubts on the impartiality of the proceedings -- and left many wondering whether the promise of a cathartic reckoning is yielding instead to the imperatives of old partisan feuds.
"We have been concerned from the very beginning about the ICT and the rules of procedure," notes Tej Thapa of Human Rights Watch (HRW). Fueling such worries is the fact that the defendants are all opposition politicians who have participated in recent governments. The current Awami League (AL) administration promised such a trial in the 2008 election that they won in a landslide.
More from Democracy Lab
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
- The 'Cold Peace' Between Moscow and Washington Just Got Colder
- Too Many Stakeholders Spoil the Soup
Chief among the defendants are the elderly leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, the largest Islamic political group in the country and a coalition partner of the primary opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The Jamaat is traditionally seen as more pro-Pakistan. The ruling Awami League, which leans toward India, tends to have a more secular stance; it traces its political lineage back to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, when Bengali nationalists in what was then known as "East Pakistan" led a fight to break away from the control of Islamabad.
Estimates vary on the numbers of Bangladeshis who perished in the conflict: The figures range from tens of thousands to three million. Possibly hundreds of thousands of women are believed to have become the victims of brutal sexual crimes at the hands of paramilitaries and the Pakistani military. Rape and butchery were seen as a strategy of the Pakistani military in its efforts to crush freedom fighters and to purge the non-Islamic elements of Bangladeshi society, through the targeting of Hindus and intellectuals.
One of the chief defendants in the current trial, Ghulam Azam, for example, was chairman of Jamaat at the time of the war, and allegedly set up vigilante groups to oppose Bangladeshi independence. (The photo above shows Azam arriving at court in his wheelchair earlier this year.)