War Crimes Executions: Hasina Govt’s Way of Decimating Opposition

Although Hasina faces a much weaker opposition in Bangladesh, she has another challenge ahead, writes Subir Bhaumik.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
In this November 21, 2015 photo, a Bangladeshi activist waves the national flag as he celebrates outside the Central Jail, where two war criminals were executed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Photo: AP)

Bangladesh erupted with joy when two war criminals were hanged on Sunday, but many across the world including the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for stopping the executions. Now, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has joined the chorus, calling for a moratorium on death sentences in Bangladesh.

These global human rights groups – and some Western governments – allege the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has not conducted the trials with ‘fairness’. The argument is straightforward – the trials don’t match ‘international standards’, so those found guilty by them should not be punished and surely not hanged.

Bangladeshi policemen patrol through the streets during a nationwide strike called by the main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 23, 2015. (Photo: AP)
Bangladeshi policemen patrol through the streets during a nationwide strike called by the main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 23, 2015. (Photo: AP)

Standards of Trial

The usual Western double standards are again up on display, but it is not easy for Sheikh Hasina’s government to ignore the call when it comes from a UN body. Now who decides the standards? Also, does a Bangladeshi, whose father was killed or mother was raped on the orders of those brought to justice, care about ‘international standards’ of trial? Needless to say, the trials are popular in Bangladesh, especially because Pakistan objects to them so strongly.

An activist shouts slogans as he holds the side of a huge Bangladeshi flag in a rally, celebrating the execution of two opposition leaders in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)
An activist shouts slogans as he holds the side of a huge Bangladeshi flag in a rally, celebrating the execution of two opposition leaders in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)

For all Bangladeshis who experienced the Pakistani brutalities – and those of their Bengali cohorts like Jamaat leaders – in 1971, the reaction of dismay from Islamabad is expected and provokes them even further. Islamabad threatened further strain in its relations with Dhaka after their ‘trusted friend’ Mujahid and Salauddin Quader (Saqa) were hanged.

The Bangladesh foreign office called in the Pakistani envoy to protest the “interference in our internal affairs”. Even Pakistani human rights icon Asma Jehangir pulled up Islamabad for the way it reacted.

Snapshot

What Justifies the Executions?

  • The UN Office for Human Rights asks Bangladesh for a moratorium on executions.
  • Bangladesh faces much criticism from global human rights groups and Western countries over the execution of 1971 war criminals.
  • But back home, there is a groundswell of public anger against these war criminals who are found guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’.
  • The Awami League government cannot ignore the strong domestic opinion for the trials and executions because this was one of its key electoral promises.
  • Pro-liberation forces, Hasina’s core constituency, feel the executions are a must from the perspective of ‘better late than never’ justice.

Trials, a Vindication of Justice?

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, which led the 1971 war of independence, finds itself in a tight spot. The promise to set up war crimes tribunals to bring to justice those guilty of horrendous crimes in 1971 figured high in the Awami League manifesto, on the basis of which it won the December 2008 parliament polls with a sweeping majority.

For the daughter of the ‘father of the nation’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it was impossible to not deliver on this promise for justice.

There is no escaping the fact that though Hasina faces a much weaker political opposition which stands embarrassed by these trials, she has a real challenge ahead. (Photo: Reuters)
There is no escaping the fact that though Hasina faces a much weaker political opposition which stands embarrassed by these trials, she has a real challenge ahead. (Photo: Reuters)

For most in Bangladesh, especially the Hindus who were victims of some of the worst atrocities in 1971, these trials are a vindication of justice delayed but not denied. All four who have been hanged so far – three Jamaat leaders and one from the BNP – stand accused, among other charges, of atrocities against Hindus.

The war crimes trials in Bangladesh are the first instance of legal justice for minorities in a predominantly Muslim nation. All accused and convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh stand charged for forcible conversion and killing of Hindus. This reinforces the secular credentials of Bangladesh in no uncertain terms.

Bangladeshi activists who have been campaigning for capital punishment for war criminals march in a rally as they celebrate the execution of two opposition leaders in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)
Bangladeshi activists who have been campaigning for capital punishment for war criminals march in a rally as they celebrate the execution of two opposition leaders in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)

Resurgent Islamist Platform

Public support for these trials has intensified because the ‘evil forces of 1971’ represented by these war criminals who killed and raped for Pakistan’s unity are back with a bit of a bang in Bangladesh’s politics. The murder of secular bloggers and publishers, the attacks on foreigners being attributed to Islamic State, which now claims to have a regional leader after the unification of jihadi forces in the country, have all raised the spectre of a resurgent Islamist platform that many Bangladeshis feel will take the country back to the days of Pakistan. The country experienced this somewhat during Khaleda Zia’s government (2001-2006).

Bangladeshi security personnel stand guard at the Central Jail where Bangladeshi Nationalist Party leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid were executed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)
Bangladeshi security personnel stand guard at the Central Jail where Bangladeshi Nationalist Party leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid were executed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)

Now, under Hasina, the jihadis are on the back foot and Bangladesh’s success in boosting its economy and achieving human development is seen as a vindication of its break up from a ‘failed state’ like Pakistan.

Hasina’s critics allege she is trying to divert public attention from her governance failures by pursuing the war crimes trials because that helps her whip up public frenzy against her Islamist rivals. But that argument ends up admitting that bringing these war criminals of 1971 to justice is a popular demand of the people. The likes of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch appear keen to defend those accused of massacres and mass rapes rather than the victims – something that Bangladesh groups like the Sector Commanders Forum have not failed to point out.

Domestic Compulsions

It is true that the war crimes trials help Hasina’s agenda of decimating her Islamist opposition – especially the Jamaat-e-Islami and its ally, the BNP. The embarrassment for Bangladesh’s biggest opposition party is obvious – the BNP did not come out in defence of Saqa Chaudhury with a call for a strike like the Jamaat did for Mujahid.

The BNP restricted itself to pointing out the ‘errors in the trial process’.

Bangladeshi activist shout slogans celebrating the execution of two war criminals at the Central Jail in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)
Bangladeshi activist shout slogans celebrating the execution of two war criminals at the Central Jail in Dhaka, Bangladesh, November 22, 2015. (Photo: AP)

But the executions have ended up polarising an already polarised nation. Hasina’s decision to go ahead with the executions despite objections from Western countries may be rooted in her domestic compulsion to not ignore her core constituency of secular Bengali nationalism.

It is also seen as a tough message to the jihadis who are killing bloggers and publishers and threatening liberal intellectuals. But there is no escaping the fact that though Hasina faces a much weaker political opposition which stands embarrassed by these trials, she has a real challenge – that of a jihadi gang back home with possible Islamic State blessings, if not direct support.

(The writer, a veteran BBC correspondent, is author of two highly acclaimed books on Northeast India – “Insurgent Crossfire” and “Troubled Periphery”.)

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