Violence in Bangladesh is going from bad to worse, yet international concern and pressure for change remains worryingly inadequate
The situation in Bangladesh is going from bad to worse. Innocent lives are being lost at an alarming rate due to the heavy-handed police response to protests over a verdict from the controversial ‘International Crimes Tribunal’ (ICT). More than 100 people have been killed in three days mainly due to indiscriminate police shooting. The Economist has described the immediate result of the verdict as “the worst single day of political violence in the history of modern Bangladesh”. The current Awami League government has set out on a path which has divided the country and arguably brought it to the brink of civil war.
Despite wide media coverage of these frequently graphic atrocities, Western governments have put inadequate pressure on Bangladesh to stop this brutal repression of its citizens. The United Nations Secretary General and international human rights organisations have issued statements on the situation, but few governments have voiced their concerns on the killings. While one of Bangladesh’s most respected human rights organisations has called for the Home Minister to resign, holding him responsible for the “killing spree” unleashed by state security forces, a pro-government Bengali newspaper reported that he is receiving a human rights award! This is the same minister whom a decorated Bangladeshi 1971 war hero, Kader Siddiqui, has said he would testify against as a war criminal, were the ICT impartial and willing to indict members of the ruling party.
The current Awami League government set up this domestic court to deal with allegedly ‘international crimes’, but has refused international oversight of the trial proceedings. The Awami League claims that the court has been set up to try alleged war criminals from the country’s independence war with Pakistan in 1971. It is certainly true that the people of Bangladesh have long sought closure for their war wounds and the perpetrators of war-time atrocities should be brought to justice.
Unfortunately, the Awami League government appears to be using this as an opportunity to weaken their political opposition. They have arrested and placed on trial 12 people alleged to have committed crimes against humanity during the war, and unsurprisingly, all of them are from the leading opposition parties including almost the entire current leadership of the party seen as the kingmaker in elections (and currently in alliance with the leading opposition party), Jamaat-e-Islami. This party was politically opposed to Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan, but vehemently denies any involvement in atrocities committed by the Pakistan army and its paramilitary forces. The tribunal’s impartiality was in question from the start, since the investigators, prosecutors, and even judges appeared to have been selected on the basis of political affiliations. The ‘Skypegate’ scandal, uncovered in Dec 2012 by The Economist, revealed an alarming level of collusion between the judges, government ministers, prosecution, and a Bangladeshi lawyer in Brussels. Following this revelation, the presiding judge of the court resigned on 11th Dec 2012 citing personal reasons. However, no other person involved in the scandal faced any investigation and the trial continued as if nothing had happened.
The Skypegate scandal was revealed when the trial of Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a leader of the opposition, was awaiting verdict. The tribunal was then reconstituted by the government, but none of the final three judges ruling on Sayedee’s case had heard the entire proceedings–a fact protested by Human Rights Watch as undermining the possibility of a fair trial. Despite an appeal by the defence and international support for a retrial, the court only allowed the closing arguments to be re-heard. Meanwhile, the tribunal gave Jamaat leader Abdul Kader Mollah a life sentence, which sparked uproar at Shahbag, an area in the Bangladeshi capital, by government-backed activists demanding the sentence to be changed to a death sentence. Exploiting popular sentiment, the government promptly changed the law to allow the prosecution to appeal against sentences–a move also criticised by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Furthermore, contrary to the most basic standards of the rule of law, the Prime Minister demanded that the judges be attentive to “people’s expectations” in their verdict. The aforementioned flaws only hint at a myriad of other systemic problems in the ICT trial process.
The role of the majority of Bangladeshi media has been appalling and has only exacerbated an already volatile situation. Whereas Odhikar identify Jamaat supporters and the general public as the major victims of violence, much of the country’s media is trying to portray the victims as perpetrators. The media has been instrumental in blaming the opposition for recent appalling attacks on religious minority communities, dismissing Jamaat’s vehement denial and condemnation of these appalling attacks, their commitment to impartial investigations and compensation should any of their member’s be found involved, and their activists’ proactive move to protect minorities. They further fail to note Odhikar reports that ruling party members have been regularly attacking minorities over the past year without being brought to justice, while Jamaat has no such precedent. Many, including Hindu minority representatives, have noted that only the government stands to benefit from these attacks by deflecting attention from state violence; the crippled opposition can only be further harmed by out of character violence on minorities.
Most international news outlets have shown little interest in the escalating problems, with the exception of the BBC and Al-Jazeera. However, the BBC coverage in particular has been disappointing, insufficiently highlighting the irredeemably flawed and politicised nature of the ICT. Nor have they dwelt on the very possible and imminent outcome of this flawed process: the execution of potentially innocent people.
With the issue of how the next general election will be conducted still unresolved, and more ICT verdicts approaching, the country is clearly heading towards further chaos. It is essential the international community take a firm stance to ensure basic human rights are respected in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is dependent on aid from many countries in the West and Middle East. These countries should use their influence to demand that the Bangladeshi government allow for international oversight of these trials and stop interfering with its proceedings, allow citizens to exercise their democratic right to protest, and not allow its security forces to respond by shooting and killing indiscriminately. Otherwise, further innocent lives will be lost, leading in all probability to further conflict and potentially a civil war.
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