The International Crime Tribunals (ICTs) currently being conducted in Bangladesh are fulfilling their mission of exposing genocide, preserving human rights and securing justice for those who were wronged. These tribunals were established for the express purpose of exposing and prosecuting those who organized the systematic killing and rape of millions of Bangladeshis during the 1971 war of liberation. While there will always be critics, the foundation of these proceedings is sound and they should continue until justice is achieved for the people of Bangladesh.
It’s important to remember why these tribunals are so necessary. During the war of liberation, an appalling loss of life resulted because of a genocide perpetrated by the occupying Pakistani military forces aided by local collaborators. Armed military incursions such as “Operation Searchlight” were carried out to suppress the Bangladeshi national movement and eliminate all political and military opposition. These operations resulted in the Pakistanis and their collaborators systematically killing 3 million Bengali civilians, including an alarming number of women and children. These crimes fit the category of crimes against humanity. They can and must be punished.
Many of those who opposed the tribunals when they started have honestly observed them as they have progressed and now have a positive impression of them and the honest, straightforward way they have done their work. Stephen J. Rapp, U.S. ambassador at large for war-crimes issues, duly concluded in 2011 after three visits to the country: “We have full trust in the good intentions of ICT prosecutors and judges. I think these are enough for fair justice.” Based on my own observations, it is fair to say the ICT compares favorably with other tribunals being conducted around the world, particularly the one in Iraq that followed the U.S.-led operation there.
Questions about the tribunals were recently complicated by the hanging of one of those convicted of genocide. This focus is completely misguided. I personally oppose the death penalty. In this case, however, the question is whether or not the crimes of which the accused has been convicted deserve the maximum penalty allowed under the law. In this regard, my position is definitely yes.
Unfortunately, those who support those accused of perpetrating genocide against the Bangladeshi people have continued to try to derail the proceedings. They have done so by launching indiscriminate terrorism campaigns against civilians and targeted assassinations of court witnesses and members of the judicial system. During a recent meeting I had with one of the prosecutors of the tribunals, he said he was receiving death threats from these individuals. He told me these threats were widespread, but would not change his course of action.
More astonishingly, the acting secretary-general of the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami, Shafiqur Rahman, made public statements in which he bluntly warned of “deadly consequences” if Abdul Quader Mollah was hanged, as in fact he was on Dec. 12. These statements make clear that Mr. Rahman and his followers would prefer impunity, or lack of punishment, for those convicted, rather than justice. Such a course is the wrong direction for Bangladesh.
This campaign for impunity for the convicted is not limited to Bangladesh. In Dhaka, advocates for the genocide perpetrators do not hide their methods and intentions. In the West, however, they are waging a multimillion-dollar campaign of denial and propaganda trying to portray themselves as the innocent victims of political maneuvering.
Particularly active in this lobbying campaign has been Human Rights Watch. According to some inside the judicial system, it has waged the most aggressive and least scrupulous attacks against the Bangladeshi court proceedings. It is fascinating that this group would be standing up for those who have been convicted of murder and rape rather than their victims. Even more surprising, I understand that representatives of the organization have never actually visited the tribunals to establish a basis for its criticism.
The Western world should not fall prey to this sort of campaign. Indeed, any comparison of Bangladesh tribunals with the principles, methods and results of recent international experiences of trials on crimes against humanity — such as Cambodia, Cameroon, Iraq or Rwanda — will demonstrate that the Bangladesh tribunals are comparable and even exceed the standards of these other proceedings.
The Pakistani butchery committed in 1971 continues to haunt the Bangladeshi people. The tribunals are an important step toward bringing them the respect and humanity they were denied before.
Paulo Casaca is the founder and executive director of the South Asia Democratic Forum.