It is rare to try 'war criminals' 40 years after a war. But in Bangladesh, where millions suffered at the hands of the brutal Pakistani military machine and its local collaborators, war crime trials are often seen as instances of 'justice delayed but not denied'. Bangladesh says that 2.5-3 million people died in the eight-month-long civil war in 1971. Half a million women, it adds, were violated and abused. These numbers easily make it one of the bloodiest conflicts of our times. It is no surprise then that Bangladesh is still hungry for justice.
The Awami League, which led the country's war of independence from Pakistan, promised trials of 'war criminals' in the manifesto it released before Bangladesh's December 2008 parliamentary elections. With the two-third majority it secured in that election, the party gathered the confidence it needed to set up adequate war crime tribunals - a demand that many civil society and secular groups were voicing since the country returned to democracy in the early 1990s. These tribunals have now already handed two verdicts. On January 21, it gave the death sentence to former Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar for 'crimes against humanity' that ranged from mass murder and rape to the forcible conversion of Hindus. Now the Jamaat-e-Islami's assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Molla has been given a life sentence. An upset Awami League government, though, has indicated that it may appeal against the verdict and ask for the death penalty.
Many believe that the Awami League went ahead with the war crime trials because it has much political mileage to gain from such a move. Nine Jamaat-e-Islami and two Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders are in the dock, facing trials in two tribunals. The Jamaat had supported the cause of an undivided Pakistan, and mobilised its activists to form support paramilitary wings like the Razakars, Al Badr and Al Shams, all of which were responsible for horrendous atrocities like mass murder. The BNP is the country's main opposition party, but it cannot win an election against the formidable Awami League without support from the Jamaat-e-Islami. The war crime trials threaten to neutralise the entire Jamaat leadership because it isn't only a few top leaders who are in trouble. Even former and present chiefs Ghulam Azam and Matiur Rahman Nizami are not being spared. The ongoing trials are helping whip up a huge passion against anyone who supported Pakistan's war effort.
A rejuvenated Bengali nationalist spirit could help the Awami League tackle the anti-incumbency mood at a time when the BNP and the Jamaat are demanding a restoration of the caretaker system to conduct the national parliamentary polls that are due in a year. The BNP, unlike the Jamaat, did not initially oppose the 'war crime trials.' It only questioned them on the grounds of fairness and transparency. Though it supported the Jamaat's nationwide strike on January 31, it has now said it will not support the Jamaat's demand for repealing the tribunals. This issue has thrown the BNP-Jamaat alliance into considerable disarray.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is not oblivious to the fresh divides opening up in an already polarised nation. Such tribunals only help revive the memories of the 1971 Liberation War, making belated retaliation a possibility. But having promised action in its manifesto, it is impossible for the Awami League to not follow through on these trials. India, it must be said, inevitably has much to gain from these trials. Bangladesh's memories of the 1971 war often help paint the country in good light. Hundreds of Indians have been awarded 'Liberation War Medals' by the Hasina regime for supporting the cause of Bangladesh's independence. Moreover, Jamaat's downfall should also please New Delhi because not only is the outfit pro-Pakistan and anti-India, it also has strong links with Islamist radical terror groups. The only people who might be upset at this hour are Jamaat's original backers - Pakistan and other such Islamist regimes in West Asia.
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and author of Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India's North-East
The views expressed by the author are personal