Democracy Lab

The Midlife Crisis of Bangladesh

Bangladeshis want a reckoning with their bloody past. But they can do it without partisanship?

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.

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.)

Many of the most serious perpetrators are either dead or in Pakistan, where they fled after the war. But the fact some of them continued to participate in the country's political life for decades after the war rightly concerns many Bangladeshis. This also means that it is nearly impossible to separate the trial from current partisan maneuverings.

Over the past forty years, Bangladeshi politics has remained split between more conservative pro-Pakistan forces, who support a vision of Bangladesh as an Islamic nation above all else, and those who favor a country with a more secular, distinctly Bengali identity.

The December 11 resignation of Justice Nizamul Huq, one of the three senior judges presiding over the trial, is only the most recent plot twist in the trial's stormy course. He stepped down just days after The Economist acquired 17 hours of leaked Skype conversations and hundreds of e-mails that passed between him and a Brussels-based legal expert, Ahmed Ziauddin.

According to the documents, Huq told his friend that the government is "absolutely crazy for a judgment. The government has gone totally mad. They have gone completely mad, I am telling you. They want a judgment by 16th December... It's as simple as that."

The exasperated judge appears to have sought help from Ziaudinn on how to nail down quick convictions. Ziauddin even allegedly helped the judge to draw up indictments.

Huq told Ziauddin that a government minister "came to visit me this evening. He asked me to pass this verdict fast. I told him ‘how can I do that?'... He said, ‘Try as quick as you can.'" How the material was leaked is still unclear.

Defense lawyer Abdur Razzaq, a member of Jamaat, says that the revelations "seriously questioned the integrity of the court, through executive interference to the highest degree."

This could be the "tip of the iceberg," Razzaq adds, "because we do not know what conversations they had with the other judges."

The independence of the current trial was seriously compromised when a key defense witness disappeared on November 5. Shukho Ranjon Bali was originally a prosecution witness but had never appeared in court, having testified only in written statements -- a provision of the trial singled out for criticism by Human Rights Watch.

Bali's testimony was part of the trial of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, an Islamic preacher and Jamaat stalwart accused of being involved in the killing of 50 people, rape, and arson. Bali was preparing to testify in court that much of his alleged prior testimony had actually been made up by the prosecution. "Witness Bali was a real threat to the prosecution," says Razzaq. "If he had been in the witness box he would have had a shattering effect."

Defense lawyers allege that Bali was picked up by the police as he was heading to court on November 5 to testify for their side. He has not been heard from since. Had he been able to testify in court as planned, this would have posed serious questions about much of the evidence brought before the tribunal.

A U.S. State Department cable from February 2010 published by WikiLeaks bolsters the critics' concerns, noting that "there is little doubt that hard-line elements within the ruling party [AL] believe that the time is right to crush Jamaat and other Islamic parties."

Perhaps as a result, in November 2011 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that "holding individuals in pre-trial detention in the absence of any reasoned and adequate explanation is unnecessary and disproportional to the aim sought."

Defense lawyer Razzaq asserts that the international community has spoken "with one voice" in condemnation of the trial process. Many Bangladeshis have objected to the extent of international censure directed at the trial. Some contend that the criticism is of a piece with the Nixon administration's support of Pakistan at the time of the conflict, and the United States' subsequent alleged support for more conservative forces in local politics.

"The Americans have long favored BNP and Jamaat over the Awami League since they identified the AL as pro-Soviet socialists and the BNP as pro-free market," says Zafar Sobhan, a columnist and editor of the Dhaka Tribune newspaper. "They still have a preference for moderate Muslim parties over liberal democrats in the developing world."

Most of the defendants are from Jamaat, the third-largest party in the country, while two are from the BNP. The two parties formed a coalition in the previous democratically-elected government between 2001-2006 under Khaleda Zia, a perennial rival to current AL Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Both of these female figureheads are daughters of assassinated former leaders. (Between early 2007 and the 2008 election the country was under military rule.)

Jamaat has become a serious player because of its capacity to bring one of the main parties to power through coalition. Defense lawyer Razzaq alleges that, as a result, nine of the Jamaat defendants on trial have been charged "for political reasons." He calls the tribunal "a show trial."

For Ishtiaque Hussein, a veteran freedom fighter from the 1971 war, there is "no doubt" that the Jamaat party members now on trial were involved in the genocide.

Many Bangladeshis insist that the country needs to heal the wounds of its founding conflict by seeing justice done. "The 1971 war clearly remains an open wound for most Bangladeshis," Thapa says. "Human Rights Watch feels strongly that accountability for the horrific crimes is very important, and that justice must be brought to the victims who have waited for over 40 years."

The recent turmoil has raised the political temperature, resulting in a litany of general strikes, known as hartals, in the capital Dhaka, causing chaos and economic uncertainty. This has fueled rumors that the military will once again step in and take power. It was likely similar fears that last year prompted the Awami League to abolish the long-standing caretaker system, in which the incumbent government cedes power to an interim government before and during elections.

Predictably this has only fueled more opposition and popular ire, paradoxically increasing the likelihood of another military takeover. Some Bangladeshis wonder whether the next general election, currently scheduled for next winter, will take place as planned.

The trial has exacerbated the deep chasms among the country's various political camps. Its outcome will have a profound effect on the coming political year (including the election). If the defendants (who theoretically face the death penalty) are found guilty, they could become martyrs for conservative Islamic parties or instill further power in the ruling AL. At the same time, there are many voters who believe in the necessity of urgent action to rid the political elite of possible war criminals. They will see a failure by the prosecution to make its accusations stick as a sign of the government's weakness.

What is certain is that the many irregularities in the tribunal have undermined its legitimacy. For the time being, the disputes over Bangladesh's past continue to divide the present.

STRDEL/AFP/GettyImages

Dispatch

Return of the Troubles

Is Northern Ireland falling apart all over again?

DUBLIN - Five members of Northern Ireland's assembly got an unwelcome early Christmas present on Dec. 19 when envelopes containing bullets were sent to their offices in Belfast. The packages were just the latest sign of rising tensions in a region that has been living in an uneasy state of calm for the last decade and a half, and has some worried about the potential of a return to the bad old days -- when bombings, riots, and military operations were regular features of Northern Irish life.

Two recipients of the packages were members of the nationalist Sinn Fein party -- once known as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army -- and three belonged to the avowedly cross-community Alliance Party. Although the envelopes contained no notes, it wasn't hard to guess the motive behind them. One of the MPs, Alliance's Naomi Long, who represents predominantly unionist East Belfast, was issued a death threat earlier this month and forced to leave her home by loyalists angered at her party's decision to support a compromise with Irish nationalists on the thorny issue of whether to fly the British flag atop Belfast City Hall. Until two weeks ago, the flag flew continuously; now it will fly only on 15 designated days during the year.

Loyalists reacted angrily to the council's decision. On Dec. 3, as the council was voting on its new flags policy, a crowd outside, many with Union Jack scarves tied across their faces, broke through the back gate of City Hall. Their attempts to enter the building failed, but street protests have hit swathes of Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast, in the weeks since, in some of the worst unrest the region has seen since the 1990s.

The seasonal ill will has not been confined to the loyalists. Earlier this week, an off-duty police officer narrowly avoided serious injury, or even death, when two men opened fire on him in Bangor, a satellite town about 15 miles from Belfast. The assailants are thought to be anti-ceasefire republicans. On Dec. 20, two men were charged in connection with the murder of prison officer David Black, shot dead in November by a new militant group calling itself the Irish Republican Army. (The better-known Provisional IRA -- which waged an armed campaign against British rule for decades -- formally laid down its arms in 2005, though a number of splinter groups and have taken up the IRA mantle since then.)

Street protests. Shootings. Death threats. This is not what Northern Ireland was supposed to look like in 2012, almost 15 years after the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement. That agreement, which introduced a power-sharing assembly between unionists and nationalists, has been largely considered a success, to the extent that the large-scale violence known collectively as "The Troubles" has come to an end. Between 2006 and 2010, only nine people were killed in political violence, compared with an average of more than 100 per year during the 30 years of The Troubles. British soldiers on the streets are no longer a quotidian feature of Northern Irish life.

But Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The number of "peacewalls," physical barriers separating Catholic and Protestant communities, has increased sharply since the first ceasefires in 1994. Most people in the region cannot envisage the barriers being removed, according to a recent survey conducted by the University of Ulster. In housing and education, Northern Ireland remains one of the most segregated tracts of land anywhere on the planet -- less than one in 10 children attends a school that is integrated between Catholics and Protestant. This figure has remained stubbornly low despite the cessation of violence.

Many of those protesting the removal of the flag from Belfast City Hall -- a policy, incidentally, that was adopted by a slew of Unionist-dominated councils in other towns in the past 5 years without a murmur of complaint -- come from underprivileged Protestant communities where jobs are scarce and educational attainment low. The rise in tensions in recent years has coincided with a slump in the Northern Irish economy. Unemployment, which now stands at around 8 percent, has more than doubled since 2008. Spending cuts are beginning to bite, particularly in already deprived communities. Electoral turnout in such areas has fallen precipitously, and those Protestants who do vote generally support the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party. Their Catholic counterparts generally vote en mass for Sinn Fein. The DUP and Sinn Fein were once viewed as the unruly fringes of loyalism and republicanism respectively, but are now the dominant political forces in Northern Ireland.

While it is rightly credited for brining peace and stability to Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement -- negotiated with the strong support of Bill Clinton's administration and U.S. envoy George Mitchell -- is also in part to blame for the polarization of politics that has taken place since it was ratified in 1998. The power-sharing system it established privileges sectarian politics: On election to the assembly, known locally as Stormont, all members must designate themselves "nationalist," "unionist," or "other." Thanks to the terms of the agreement, most bills in the assembly require 60 percent support to pass and at least 40 percent support from both the nationalist and unionist designations voting. The most extreme ethnic voices -- Sinn Fein and the DUP -- have profited handsomely from this system, while their more moderate rivals in the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party have floundered. The "others" are effectively powerless -- one reason why the non-sectarian Alliance party has improved only marginally on the 6.5 percent of the vote it received in the first devolved elections, in 1998.

Somewhat ironically, this hollowing out of the middle ground of Northern Irish politics has occurred at a time when identity appears increasingly fluid. The results of the 2011 Northern Ireland census, released last week, showed that while two-fifths of respondents identified themselves only as "British" and a quarter put themselves down as "Irish," just over 21 percent described themselves as Northern Irish. It was the first time the question had ever been asked.

The surprisingly large number claiming "Northern Irish" identity -- particularly among young people -- has been hailed in some quarters as evidence that the next generation may finally be moving beyond the embattled Orange and Green silos of their forebears. But a "Northern Irish" identity does not mean a more tolerant one. Many of those who checked this box on the census are likely the same ones on the streets protesting the loss of their "cultural identity," as represented by the red, white, and blue flag over Belfast City. The arrest of an 11-year-old boy connection with flag-related disturbances in Lisburn earlier this week may have been a glimpse of the region's future.

The recent instability may come as such a surprise given that, from the outside, reconciliation between the two sides seemed to be making great strides. The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the seemingly impossible -- republicans and loyalists, in the form of Sinn Fein and the DUP, sharing power. But despite the photo ops featuring former IRA leaders and the Queen, and the bonhomie between once sworn enemies Ian Paisley, the erstwhile first minister and late unionist firebrand, and his deputy, onetime terrorist Martin McGuinness Stormont has delivered precious little in terms of policy,. The lack of a real opposition has not helped matters. A long-neglected anti-sectarian strategy, Sharing, Cohesion and Integration, has still not been passed by Stormont.

As an elite-level compromise, the agreement has been a tremendous success, but the distance between Northern Ireland's political classes and their supporters appears to be widening. Unlike previous mass loyalist demonstrations -- the iconic 1985 ‘Ulster Says No' campaign outside Belfast City Hall, which brought down the Anglo-Irish Agreement, for example -- the current unrest has been orchestrated not by demagogic leaders, but by disenfranchised young men on social media.

As it stands, Northern Irish politics benefits the rulers but leaves the ruled increasingly voiceless. If the region can't create a political framework that allows the "others" to be heard, extremists on both sides will continue to dictate Northern Ireland's future.

PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images