The War Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has sentenced the head of the Islamic Party (Jamaat Islami), Delwar Hossain, to death. Groups have thronged the streets of Dhaka in support and also in condemnation of the decision. One might be forgiven to think that this is a national issue bringing vindication to a nation that experienced a bloodbath during the 1971 war. However, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the ruling Awami League, is the daughter of the Founding Father of Bangladesh, Mujibur Rahman who declared a general amnesty to war criminals after independence. Why then is the War Crimes Tribunal trying to prosecute the leaders of the Islamic Party?
It is to be appreciated that the Islamic Parties have, time and again, switched allegiance since the 1990s. They have been in coalition with the ruling party before and are now in coalition with Hasina’s arch rival, Khaleda Zia’s BNP Party. Both these parties have been in a game of “musical chairs” ruling one after another. A seemingly popular political conspiracy that abounds in Bangladesh is that these parties take turns to rule and loot as much as they can while in power and then pass on power to the other party to take its “fair share”.
By the time the other party is nearing the end of its rule, people would have forgotten the “abuses” suffered under the previous government, and would vote them back into power due to anger with the current party and the game of musical chairs continues.
While there is lack of evidence to prove this conspiracy, it is nevertheless an incontrovertible fact that Bangladesh suffers from a corruption endemic. This can clearly be highlighted by the recent debacle surrounding the Padma Bridge project. The IMF imposed tough conditions on the loan to prevent the money from ending up in ministers pockets. As a result, Hasina bullishly rejected the IMF assistance and said that Bangladesh has enough resources to push through the billion dollar project. Nevertheless this is not the main issue which I would like to discuss.
We must note that elections are around the corner. It seems the Awami League wants to humiliate their political opponents for siding with war criminals as the Jamaat Islami is in a coalition with the BNP. Recent days have seen Bangladesh paralyzed by strikes organized by the BNP and groups of Islamic Parties like Hafazat ul Islami. This, notwithstanding the building collapses and fires that have plagued the textile industry, has given rise to considerable public anger.
Will the Awami League be punished? It is hard to postulate anything. Rule of law is only seen on paper and this is compounded by the illiteracy and poverty that plagues the country. One may be living out of Bangladesh but his vote may have been ‘cast’ in favour of a particular party. Similarly, a small handout days before the election may ‘compel’ the poor and vulnerable to cast their vote in favour of a particular party.
Now how do we decide if this is political vendetta or national vindication for the Bangladeshi people? Mujibur Rahman did declare a general amnesty. His successor, Zia Rehman, also invited many Jamaat Islami leaders back especially from Pakistan and the Middle East and other areas for supposedly economic reasons as these parties are rich with Islamic dollars. The Jerusalem Post also reported that the Islamic parties “command significant material and human resources.” General Ershad, Zia’s successor, has continued this trend. Islam was used to legitimize his military dictatorship. It was during Ershad’s rule that Islam was declared as the state religion. However, the government asserts that the amnesty was for soldiers and not collaborators and traitors like the Jamaat Islami and its allies.
The idea of political vendetta and this tribunal being used as a mechanism to garner popular votes for the Awami League was lent credence by the resignation of the then presiding judge, Muhammad Nizamul Haq, after an interview with The Economist cast doubt on his role in the Tribunal. It is also to be appreciated that The International Commission of Jurists also said those accused “should be brought to justice, not subjected to vengeance”
Rule of law is critical for any country and no one should be above the law. If the war criminals are indeed guilty they should be sentenced but justice must not only be done, it must be manifestly seen to be done. Unfortunately, the tribunals are not being seen as independent at least from an external point of view. This is a dangerous precedent. Looking at the issue from a bird’s eye point of view, if political parties are allowed to ”toy” with the law for political purposes, there is no way Bangladesh can move forward in the 21st century.
As such we can see a nation divided. Bangladesh should focus on the dispensation of the nation’s wealth to its people and develop the infrastructure of the nation to support the rising economy. Political infighting and toying with the rule of law will result only in a victory for the politicians, and losses for the masses – especially the poor.