Flawed war crimes trials push Bangladesh to the edge

Death sentence for opposition MP risks polarising population

Bangladeshi policemen escort Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) member, Salauddin Quader Chowdhury (C), to a court in Dhaka. Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was sentenced to death on October 1, 2013, for war crimes, becoming the first lawmaker to be convicted for offences committed during the 1971 war of independence. AFP PHOTO/Farjana K. GODHULY/ FILESFARJANA K. GODHULY/AFP/Getty Images

Bangladesh – for historical reasons a byword in the west for famine, poverty and disaster – has achieved notable social and economic successes in the past two decades. Malnutrition, child mortality and fertility are down. Literacy and life expectancy are up. On all these counts, Bangladesh scores better than its wealthier neighbour India.

A crowded and largely Muslim nation of over 150m, Bangladesh has also joined China and Italy as a major garment exporter, albeit one whose reputation is marred by factory fires and a building collapse in April that killed more than 1,000 workers.

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Yet Bangladesh’s achievements are now gravely threatened by politics, specifically the determination of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League government to persecute her opponents – to have them hanged, in fact – with the help of a war-crimes tribunal that has lost all credibility.

On Tuesday the International Crimes Tribunal (a domestic court, despite its name) handed a death sentence to Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a member of parliament from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for torture, rape and genocide during the war that led to independence from Pakistan in 1971.

He was the seventh person to be sentenced by the court – the others are or were leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist ally of the BNP – and the news was greeted with instant protests by human rights activists convinced that the government is trying to finish the trials in unseemly haste before a general election due by January.

“These tribunals have proved so divisive, and have been so poorly managed, they risk polarising Bangladesh for a generation and poisoning political debate before the elections,” said Lord Carlile, a British Liberal Democrat peer and expert on war crimes and terrorism. He said he had irrefutable evidence that the Chowdhury judgment was either written by the government or submitted by the judges in advance in draft form to the law ministry for vetting.

Foreign governments, although preoccupied with the war in Syria and other crises, are so worried about Bangladeshi politics and the possible radicalisation of a populous country wedged between the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia that they have urged Sheikh Hasina and her rival Khaleda Zia, the BNP leader, to talk to each other and ease the tension.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, and Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, have both urged the two women to ensure a peaceful election by resolving a dispute over what happens when the current parliament’s term expires later this month; the BNP, which is expected to win a free election, wants a non-party caretaker government to take over, but Sheikh Hasina insists on staying at the helm.

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The Awami League government is under fire from domestic and foreign critics for other reasons. It has detained human rights activists and has threatened to seize businesses connected to Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of microlender Grameen Bank, probably because he was considering a new career in politics.

But it is the war crimes process that has attracted the most opprobrium.

Few question the need for a public reckoning, however late, given the slaughter committed by Pakistani troops and their Jamaat allies in their doomed war to keep Pakistan united 42 years ago. What is unacceptable to international jurists and Bangladeshi moderates is the blatant politicisation of the tribunal established by the current government, which prompted one British lawyer hired by JI to talk of a “political show trial” after a death sentence last month for JI leader Abdul Quader Mollah.

Even if the election passes off peacefully, the danger in Bangladesh’s bipolar, “winner takes all” political culture is that BNP ministers in a new government would take revenge on their Awami League predecessors, just as the League has been taking revenge on the BNP for the past five years.

The war crimes tribunal, said Lord Carlile, was “an extreme form of point-scoring by one of the two big parties against the other”. If the government changed, the position might simply be reversed “with people being hanged for political reasons, which is a form of retribution that should have gone out 100 years ago”.

Source: Financial Times