The tribunal on war crimes established in March 2010 has pushed Bangladesh to extreme violence. Since 28 February, the events have taken a violent turn in which almost 100 persons including women, children and police officers have lost life. Several hundreds more are injured, and properties destroyed of which no body in the country has any true count. Many, who have lost their lives or are injured, were not participating in any armed protest. They were unfortunate to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Both state and non-state actors are responsible for these gruesome events, of which the government apparently has no control.
The violence has spread beyond Dhaka, where, fundamentalist hoodlums target members of the minority communities and their properties. Arson and looting is rampant. Places of worship are burned down or otherwise vandalised. It is gruesomely clear that nobody is in control. Amidst the events, political parties are settling their scores against each other, for which the ruling political party is abundantly misusing the state forces.
The violence is linked to the war crimes tribunal and the judgments the tribunal pronounced. The tribunal has negated some of the basic norms of criminal justice, for instance, it has held ‘faceless’ trials. The tribunal specifically targets the Jamat-e-Islami, a political party that collaborated with the Pakistan military during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. The Jamat-e-Islami is widely believed to have committed crimes against humanity resisting the independence movement and understandably has no wide support within Bangladesh. Victims of crime and inhumanity committed during 1971 and their families expect the Jamat-e-Islami, its affiliates and allies, be punished. The incumbent government knows this well, and in fact the tribunal is a shoddy attempt of legalising a political act, that lacks transparency, accountability and is destined to fail justice. Regrettably, the atrocious nature of violence committed by the Pakistan military in which the Jamat-e-Islami directly partook, and the yearning for justice of those who are wronged in the process threatens anyone who would speak against the tribunal, irrespective of the legitimacy of its constitution, purpose and processes. In addition, the Jamat-e-Islami has responded, in the manner in which it understands expressing dissent, through violence.
The tribunal is a political weapon of the incumbent government and its 14-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Awami League. Persons, who are close to the Awami League are not investigated for war crimes, though there are strong allegations against them. Similar allegations of bias exist concerning investigation and prosecution, that naturally is reflected in the adjudication of cases. The integrity of the investigative, prosecutorial, and adjudicative limbs of the tribunal is also widely questioned.
The ensuing confusion has resulted in opportunities for criminal elements in the country, to target their victims, most importantly the minorities. The neutral space for discussion and criticism of what is happening in Bangladesh is substantially narrow. Human rights defenders risk various forms of repression. Media and information flow through modern communication tools have been severely restricted and monitored by the state.
In the mad rush of the political parties to grab power in the country, what they have forgotten is the duty of the state to bring about justice, to those whom it has been denied thus far. The shoddy tribunal, literally negates the possibility of legitimate justice, not only to those who have suffered violence in the past but to the entire psyche of the nation. Worse, the tribunal has become a cause for more violence, and will trash a nation’s hope to seek and obtain justice.
Video footages available show the state forces murdering unarmed civilians in full public view. On 15 February, the state police shot Mr. Tofayel Ahmed, a student in Cox’s Bazar district town. In another incident, like several others, persons allegedly from the Islami Chhatra Shibir, a student wing of the Jamat-e-Islami, are seen snatching guns from police officers and beating officers to death.
The country today has slipped further into an abyss where the notion of the rule of law, does not exist. It is Bangladesh’s tragedy that an institution created to deal with past human rights abuses has pushed the country to the verge of a civil war. Deep problems that have affected the functioning of justice institutions today are claiming its inevitable price, in blood.