Bangladesh’s general elections on December 30 is widely seen as a referendum on the ruling Awami League’s promise to put on trial and punish all those accused of war crimes during the country’s liberation war against Pakistan in 1971.
Despite international outcry over the fairness of the trials, there is strong domestic support for the judicial process to ensure justice for millions of people impacted during the nine-month-long war.
The Sheikh Hasina government had set up the war crimes tribunal to look into atrocities committed by Pakistani forces and local collaborators during the war, during which the government says three million people were killed, 200,000 women raped and 10 million people displaced.
The government blames the Jammat-e-Islami party—the largest Islamist party in the country--for the crimes. The Jammat was against independence but denies having committed the atrocities.
Senior journalist and Bangladesh-watcher Subir Bhaumik says the war crimes have divided the country and re-opened old wounds. “After coming to power with a big mandate, the Awami League was under pressure to fulfill its election manifesto and start the war crime trials as it was popular demand of a large section of people in Bangladesh.
“The movement was spearheaded by strong passionate Bengali secular nationalists—the 1971 Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee to exterminate the killers and collaborators), bloggers and the 2013 Shahbag protests.”
The 2013 Shahbag protests originated in a central Dhaka neighbourhood but spread to other parts of Bangladesh, as people rallied for capital punishment to the war criminals sentenced to life imprisonment, and others convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal set up by Hasina.
The 1971 war is a reference point and the war crime trails, have, in a huge way, polarised the society in Bangladesh on political lines—pro-liberation and anti-liberation, says Bhaumik.
“In the 2014 polls, the Awami League won the elections uncontested—the BNP and its allies had boycotted the election—but the December 30 polls will be a referendum of sorts on the war crime trials.
“Both the sides are passionate. Whether the people of Bangladesh will endorse the war crime trials apart from Hasina’s development thrust riding on a robust economy will be clear next week,” Bhaumik says.
Shahriar Kabir, convener of the Nirmul Committee, however, says that the trials should not be seen as political vendetta by parties as alleged by many foreign observers.
“The war crime trials are a vindication of the spirit of 1971, without which the very existence of Bangladesh will be called to question. Bangladesh has survived as Bangladesh and it cannot be another Bengali Pakistan,” he says.
According to Bhaumik, the war crime trials are seen by many hardline pro-liberation elements as the continuance of the “unfinished liberation struggle”.
The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), however, questions the validity of the trials.
“The war crime trials are a huge conspiracy to decimate the political opposition in the country. The trials are also flawed and leaves behind many unanswered questions,” says BNP joint general secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi.
Critics of the International Crimes Tribunal established by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2010, say it fails to follow international standards, fairness and transparency, and panders to a desire for revenge against the opposition.
During the verdicts and the executions carried out between March 2013 and September 2016, Jammat leaders staged protests that led to violent clashes between Islamists and security forces, leading to some 500 deaths.
Since its inception on March 25, 2010, the tribunals have until now delivered judgments in 35 cases against 85 war criminals, including 54 who were sentenced to death, says Tureen Afroz, prosecutor, War Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh.
Following the verdicts of the trials at the tribunals, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh has so far disposed of the appeals of seven war criminals, she says.
Until now six opposition leaders, including five top Jammat party leaders have been executed for war crimes since the war crimes tribunal set up in 2010.
The Awami League defends the trials, saying they are necessary to heal the wounds of the conflict and bring the guilty to book.
“The war crime trials were the demands of the Bengali nation and we have only tried to fulfill our electoral pledge,” says Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader.
In 2016, former Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni had said the war crime trials were aimed at ending the culture of impunity that had come to stay during the long years of military rule and the BNP-Jammat government.
The global body, Human Rights Watch, says the trials do not meet international standards while the United States too called for the process to be fair and transparent.
However, on June 20 last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) president Justice Silvia Alejandra Fernández de Gurmendi expressed satisfaction over the trials, according to a press release of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.