By M. Sophia Newman
February 7, 2014
What happened in 2013 seemed necessary for Bangladesh. The war crimes tribunal process was a way of cleansing the public mind of the war, even at this late date. Public participation, too, was part of that renewal.
But the tribunal was allegedly flawed from the start. The few people indicted were all powerful opponents of the ruling party, which lead to claims that the tribunal existed not for justice but rather political convenience. Allegedly there were many irregularities in the trials themselves, which undermined the validity of the judgments rendered. And the inclusion of the death penalty in the range of possible sentences violated international humanitarian legal standards, making the “International” part of the tribunal’s name untrue.
The lack of adherence to due process and the rule of law meant that the tribunal probably deepened the rift in Bangladeshi society between those who prefer ethnic nationalists and those who adhere closely to Islam. This was a renewal too – but it was the renewal of the problems of the war, not a fresh start for the country. Watching this, I didn’t fear for anyone’s right to join a party or hold specific political beliefs. Rather, I feared the entrenchment of a national divide and the bloodshed it would cause.
Few people in Bangladesh seemed to share that concern. While the first conviction (a death sentence, given in absentia to a man living abroad) passed with minimal public interest, an enormous public outcry met the second, a life sentence for Abdul Quader Mollah.
What happened next was as hopeful as the idea of war crimes trials, and much more celebrated. But it, too, was flawed – until recently, at least.
On February 5, 2013, a small group of youth began a sit-in in Shahbagh, not too far from the campus of Dhaka University. Within days, the crowd was 200,000 people, the movement named itself Ganojagoran and their chant became nearly omnipresent: “Phansi Chahiye!”
I remember the movement, which happened a few months after I moved to Dhaka. I remember commenting to an American colleague that it was like “Occupy Wall Street,” our closest political touchstone to Bangladesh’s outpouring of excitement. In reality, though, the two had little in common. Occupy Wall Street, the movement to decry the concentration of wealth in America into the hands of fewer and fewer super-elites, was rather smaller than Shahbagh, although it spread to more places and lasted longer. And unlike Occupy, the movement in Shahbagh got a lot done.
Within a month, the Government of Bangladesh altered the rules of the tribunal to allow for Quader Mollah’s sentence to be appealed. Prior to this, only a death sentence was eligible for appeal. The change permitted the convicted man’s sentence to be altered from life in prison to death by hanging. Additionally, the government partially completed their demand for Jamaat-e-Islami to be banned. In August 2013, Jamaat’s political registration was revoked and their participation in electoral politics terminated. (Organising or participating in Jamaat-sponsored activities remains legal, however.)
This is kind of amazing, if you think about it. The Shahbagh protest was large. But 2013 saw much larger ones, too. Simply being willing to show up in large numbers is no guarantee of influence in this country. Rather, the Shahbagh movement had the advantages of speaking for the foundation of ethnic nationalism on which the country based its liberation movement.
So the movement won some victories, however spooky its cries for death might have been.
The idea of demanding a change in Quader Mollah’s sentence was popular because it made sense: what imprisonment could possibly be enough, after a man had murdered hundreds of people and gone free for four decades? The protesters’ concerns about corruption resulting in the reversal of the sentence also reinforced their point about demanding the ultimate punishment.
The problem was that the demand to alter Quader Mollah’s sentence further eroded the rule of law, delegitimising the entire tribunal process. His death became an abstract act of revenge, not a well-supported conviction.
The other problem was that it invited retaliation from activists on the far right of the political spectrum. The problem with revenge is that it can become an endless cycle. Too often, the people you get revenge on will also want to get revenge on you.
And retaliate they did. The hartals of spring 2013 were vicious to the point of insanity. Many people in Bangladesh lost the right to ride the bus, walk the streets, and go to work in peace for large swath of time. A few hundred people lost their lives. Others endured burns, beatings, and other forms of physical assault. All over the country, members of religious minorities endured severe risks for a year, with some losing even their ability to remain in the country. The freedom fighters, whose war stories should have been at the front and centre of the war crimes justice process, barely saw the spotlight at all.
Shahbagh won politically. And when Quader Mollah was hanged, I sure didn’t cry for him. But I couldn’t help but notice that the country paid a very high price for the revenge-killing of just one old guy.
The necessary counterpoint to Shahbagh’s demand was always about human rights. A movement that seeks violence should also demand that the state-sponsored death penalty involved no harm to innocent people.
In recent weeks, Ganojagoran Mancha has finally made that point loud and clear. The movement has sought government intervention in the attacks on Hindu villages. It has carried out a two-day road march to a village that had been subjected to a violent attack, and even offered little aid to victims.
This was correct. There should be justice – and Hindus shouldn’t be forced to pay for it. (The same is true for everyone else.)
The movement did not need to revise its views on anything to take this life-affirming action. In Ganojagoran Mancha’s second year, I hope for this emphasis on human rights to grow. In the end, demanding justice for past atrocities will be pointless – unless it includes seeking peace and security for people in Bangladesh right now.
M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer and a public health researcher specialising in mental health.