Bangladesh’s battle for its future

Sadeq Khan

Bangladesh executed the septuagenarian leader of its largest Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. He was executed for crimes against humanity during the country’s bloody 1971 struggle for independence from Pakistan, after his conviction in a long drawn trial in an “International” Crimes Tribunal set up under a home-made law.

The controversial hanging of Motiur Rahman Nizami, 73-year-old leader of a major component of the mainstream opposition alliance, in the zero hour of May 11, comes at a time of growing insecurity in Bangladesh from Islamic extremism and terrorism. The radical Islamists have serially assassinated “free-thinking” bloggers, academics, gay people, members of religious minorities and others who they consider enemies of Islam.

Credible justice
An instant report in the Financial Times on-line (ft.com) by Ami Kazmin from New Delhi, observed: “Mr Nizami’s trial was held by Bangladesh’s domestic International Crimes Tribunal, established by Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, in 2009 to try those believed to be responsible for the worst atrocities of the secession struggle. The failure to bring to account pro-Pakistan, Islamist-leaning politicians responsible for the horrific wartime human rights abuses has long been a point of resentment among Bangladesh’s secular nationalists, especially as many went on to successful careers in mainstream Bangladesh politics.
Mr Nizami served as a cabinet minister in a coalition government led by Ms Hasina’s bitter rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist party.
After returning to power in 2009, Ms Hasina vowed to bring war criminals to justice, which some said could have been an opportunity to ‘right a historical wrong’.
Instead, human rights groups say the Bangladesh tribunal’s process has fallen far short of credible and fair justice, appearing mainly to serve as a method of railroading suspects to the gallows.
The tribunal restricted the number of defence witnesses who could testify during the war crimes trials ­ Mr Nizami was allowed just four ­ and disallowed any defence challenge to inconsistent prosecution testimony.
‘We have no complaints about these guys being prosecuted, but you have to find all the evidence,’ says Meenakshi Ganguly, a South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ‘What’s happening is there is not enough of an attempt to build the prosecution case and there is very little attempt at the right to the defence.’
Mr Nizami is the fourth politician from Jamaat-e-Islami to be executed after conviction by the tribunal. In November, a senior BNP leader, who had been a long-time parliament member, and the party’s secretary-general, were also hanged.
“The execution (of Mr. Nizami) has also raised concerns of fresh political violence that could disrupt Bangladesh’s successful garment industry, which exported $26bn worth of apparel, mostly to western brands, last year.
Observers express concerns
“In 2013, the convictions of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders by the tribunal triggered some of Bangladesh’s most deadly political violence in decades, with around 500 people killed, mostly in clashes between Islamists and police.
Since then, authorities have arrested thousands of Jamaat supporters, while many leaders have gone into hiding.”
Earlier on May 9, Human Rights Watch had raised objection to the execution by a statement from New York, essentially arguing as follows:
“The death sentence against Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islaami party, should be suspended with immediate effect. The Supreme Court’s May 5 rejection of his review petition means that Nizami could be hanged in the coming days after the deadline to appeal for presidential clemency expires. Nizami was convicted for war crimes allegedly committed by forces under his command during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence by the country’s specially constituted International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in 2014.
Several prominent international observers have expressed serious concerns over previous death penalty convictions handed down by the ICT due to concerns over fair trials. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an irreversible, degrading, and cruel punishment. It is particularly problematic when there are questions about whether proceedings meet fair trial standards.      As in other cases before the ICT, the court put an arbitrary limit on the number of witnesses Nizami could call to defend himself against charges of war crimes. Nizami was ultimately allowed to call just four witnesses in his defense. He was not allowed to challenge prosecution witnesses who allegedly had offered prior inconsistent testimony. Conversations leaked to the Economist (of London) as part of the ‘Skypegate’ scandal also revealed that the Nizami trial was unlawfully discussed by the presiding judge, the prosecution, and an external consultant, who were heard debating trial strategies.
Justice and accountability
Human Rights Watch strongly supports the need for justice and accountability for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 conflict but has pointed out numerous shortcomings in ICT proceedings leading to flawed judgments and, in some cases, hangings, despite well-documented fair trial concerns. Bangladesh’s problematic article 47A(1) of the constitution specifically strips those accused of war crimes of their fundamental rights, including the right to an expeditious trial by an independent and impartial court or tribunal. This pernicious amendment to the constitution allows the ICT overly broad discretion to deny those charged with war crimes the same rights and procedures as other defendants. Over 20 people have been executed since the Awami League government took office in 2009.
While many in Bangladesh believe Nizami to be guilty and want him punished, justice is only served through fair trials. Instead of expedited hangings, authorities in Bangladesh should do everything possible to ensure that victims receive accurate answers about responsibility for crimes of such gravity and magnitude.”
Influential Indian newspaper, The Hindu had commented online in its editorial on May 9, around 3 p.m. Bangladesh time, i.e. 33 hours before Nizami’s execution, under the title ‘Bangladesh’s battle for its future’ as follows:
“The murders of liberals, bloggers, secularists and LGBT rights activists continue in Bangladesh. Over the past few weeks, a Hindu tailor, a gay rights advocate, a social media activist and a Sufi leader have been killed by suspected Islamists. The exact identity of the killers is widely contested. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the leading Islamist group, denies any link to the attacks ­ while many disagree with the breezy attempt to connect the Islamic State to the killings. Any which way you look at them, the murders cannot be seen in isolation from the ongoing war crimes trials of those who collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War of 1971, causing countless deaths in the months leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. The attacks are but indications of a battle being waged between two sets of ideas on the country’s past, present and future.
Credit goes to AL
“The first set imagines Bangladesh as a nation born of a struggle against the linguistic and cultural hegemony of what was then West Pakistan, and founded on a commitment to liberal, secular and civic values. The second imagines the country not in civic terms but as yet another outpost of political Islam.
The sharp battle lines, drawn ideologically and on the streets, go back to the Shahbag protests in 2013 seeking capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Molla and a ban on the organisation. To the ruling Awami League’s credit, the government set up the war crimes trials despite threats from the Islamists. It also sought thus to delegitimise groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami that had harboured war criminals and allied themselves with powerful political forces, including successive military dictatorships and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to stall the transition of Bangladesh into a progressive, democratic nation state.
But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has tended to limit her government’s role to prosecuting the trials. The government has failed to bring the assassins of bloggers, rights activists and others to justice ­ it perhaps fears a greater blowback from the Islamists if it does so. As crucially, it is refusing to articulate the political narrative connecting the attacks to the war crimes trials. This abdication exposes ordinary citizens as the first line of defence against extremism. Ms. Hasina will be jeopardising Bangladesh’s future as a democratic nation if her government does not rally on the side of the rights activists against the Islamists. Already, groups such as the Islamic State seem to be emboldened by the actions of the Islamists and have publicly sought to deepen their base in Bangladesh. The longer the government remains on the sidelines in this fight for secularism, the stronger the forces of extremism will become.”
Repressive grip
International Crisis Group and other Western Bangladesh-watchers, however, are finding the incumbent government’s prolonged oppressive grip over power, as successor to a two-year military-backed and manipulative authoritarian interlude and consolidated by a boycotted one-sided polls, to be the casus belli for Islamist extremism creeping into Sufi-oriented Bangladesh society. The ruling coterie is systematically moving away from pluralism towards a one-person one-party state with loyalists on all sides of a controlled elective order for public offices and for crony capitalism alike. It is not the clash of ideas, but that of severe repression of legitimate dissent that may be bending the future of Bangladesh towards extremist violence, hate movements, and assassination bids on moderate Muslims as much as on secularists. As the New York Times had reported on May 8, one day ahead of the editorial comment in “The Hindu”, about “Sufi”-killing by “Hacking Attack in Bangladesh:
“A girl in the district of Rajshahi happened upon the body of a Mohammad Shahidullah in a dry pond under a mango tree as she was gathering dried leaves for a fire on Friday evening. Mr. Shahidullah was found about 25 miles from his home with two deep wounds in his neck and throat.
“Similar attacks on intellectuals, secular writers and others have taken place over the last two years in Bangladesh. The attacks have seemed to increase in recent weeks, with a Hindu tailor being hacked to death last month, as were two gay rights activists, among others. Several of the assaults have been claimed by the Islamic State or by a branch of Al Qaeda, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist websites. An English professor was hacked to death, also in Rajshahi, last month, in an attack that was claimed by the Islamic State and that police said they believed was connected to Islamist militants.
Togetherness & harmony
“Mr. Shahidullah was a pir, a leader in Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, and had more than two dozen followers in other villages, said his son, Shojol Ahmed. Sufism is seen as a moderate form of Islam, and attacks on secular bloggers and religious minorities have raised fears of a rising Islamic fundamentalism in the country.”
Vast majority of people in Bangladesh believe that their future would be peaceful and prosperous if “activism” is not orchestrated by outside interests, like in the Middle East, condemning political Islam as a whole, and creating conditions for misguided Islamic extremism pitched against tolerant Islam and other faiths existing in togetherness and harmony that Bangladesh represents.
Source: Weekly Holiday

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