History on trial, democracy at stake in Bangladesh

bd court

By Sven Alexander Schottmann

Bangladesh’s effort to bring to justice those responsible for crimes committed during its war of independence is commendable. But amid growing violence, serious concerns about the locally-administered ‘International Crimes Tribunal’ are being raised. As a friend, Australia can help ensure that fair trial standards are maintained. What is at stake in increasingly volatile Bangladesh is democracy itself.

More often than not, states are forged in violence, but the emergence of Bangladesh some forty-two years ago was a particularly bloody episode of modern state-making. At least 300,000 were killed and many more were raped, maimed and displaced in the 1971 war to separate Bengali-speaking East Pakistan from its non-Bengali western wing.

The road from separation has not been easy either. Abroad, Bangladeshis mainly in the news for the natural disasters that regularly wreck havoc on this small country of 160 million. Its politics have been no less volatile, oscillating between military rule, the ‘soft authoritarianism’ of civilian governments and periods of democratic experimentation.

The current government was elected in 2008 with the promise to bring to book those responsible for the atrocities of 1971. But the International Crimes Tribunal it set up falls short of these aspirations. In December last year, The Economist magazine published leaked emails and telephone conversations as evidence of government interference in the trial process. Recent moves to implement retroactive legislation have further tainted the tribunal. Human Rights Watch has warned that these amendments violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is party.

The stakes are high for Bangladesh. Long unjustly dismissed as an economic basket case, growth since the mid-1990s has averaged between five and six percent. The country has made significant progress and has become identified as one of the promising ‘next eleven’ developing economies. Yet these gains are being risked by what many in the opposition claim is the government’s removal of dissenting voices to its vision for Bangladesh’s future.



Scores of critical journalists have disappeared in recent times, and political activists of all persuasions are routinely intimidated – or worse. Indicative of the deteriorating law and order situation, a popular blogger was hacked to death in his home near Dhaka in mid-February, while over one hundred fifty protestors have been killed in clashes with heavily-armed policedescribed as ‘trigger happy’by international observers.

Overshadowing these events is the controversial tribunal, operational since 2010. Its juridical deficiencies and procedural flaws have come under sustained criticism from foreign leaders, international donor bodies and civil society organizations. Senior United Nations’ human rights experts have expressed serious concerns about the impartiality of judges as well as their independence from the executive.

Unlike the war crimes trials currently underway in Cambodia or Rwanda, the ICT is a fully locally-administered court. The United States’ Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, Stephen J. Rapp, recently expressed regret that many of his suggestions to ensure fair and transparent proceedingswere not taken into consideration. In a carefully worded statement, the State Department late last year reminded Bangladesh ‘to adhere to the due process standards that are part of its treaty obligations, and to fully respect the rule of law.’



The war crimes tribunal passed its third guilty verdict in early March. Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a senior opposition politician, was found guilty of murder, religious persecution and rape, and was sentenced to death. In mid-February, the life sentence given to another opposition politician sparked mass rallies in Dhaka, leading to the unedifying spectacle of thousands of protestors, many of them allied to the ruling party, calling for the imposition of the death penalty.

Even if this demand is unpalatable, the ferociousness of the protests reveals the unresolved national trauma that is 1971. Forty-two years after its painful birth, it is indeed time to hold accountable those responsible for these atrocities. But if the government is serious in its pursuit of war criminals, it dishonours the memory of victims to do this through a tribunal that carries even the faintest suggestion of a political vendetta.

As one of Bangladesh’s closest friends, Australia can help ensure that due process is maintained. For a start, the ICT could be brought under closer international scrutiny. The Khmer Rouge trial in Cambodia offers a possible model. More generally, the intimidation of opposition and critical media must stop if the new society aspired to by those occupying Shahbagh Square is finally to rise above the politically violent and morally bankrupt old order.

The effort to end the impunity of those responsible for the atrocities of 1971 brings hope to millions of victims of political violence from around the world. But justice and closure will not be attained if Bangladeshi democracy is sacrificed in the process.


Dr Sven Alexander Schottmann is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. His main research interests are Southeast Asian politics, culture and society. He is the author of numerous publications in international relations, conflict resolution, Islamic banking and interfaith dialogue.