Bangladesh’s normally volatile election atmosphere has been raised an octane level or two by the simultaneous war crimes trials being held in the country.
This is not inappropriate as the two main political parties of Bangladesh reflect the two interpretations of the 1971 liberation war that exist in the country. The ruling Awami League is the legatee of the war to free East Bengal from Pakistani rule and promotes a more liberal and secular vision of the country.
The opposition Bangladesh National Party has a stronger Islamicist bent and is comfortable allying with the Islamic parties and organisations, many of whose founders and leaders are today being tried for supporting the atrocities committed by the Pakistani military in 1971.
The latest judgment has been against Ghulam Azam, the 91-year-old former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who was sentenced on Monday to 90 years in jail.
Later this week Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, who led the Al Badr militia that murdered many Bengali intellectuals at the behest of the Pakistani military in 1971, is likely to receive his sentence.
If so, he will be the fourth Islamicist to be sentenced by the two war crimes tribunals, excluding a number who have been tried and sentenced in absentia.
It would be nice to say that these trials represent a needed catharsis for Bangladesh and its blood-stained birth. To some degree that will be true. However, the entire process has been marked by partisan politics from the start.
While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s commitment to seeking justice for 1971 cannot be doubted, her party clearly sees the trials as a means to discredit the BNP and enthuse her own base.
Her rival, Khaleda Zia, has let the Islamicist parties act as the stormtroopers in the violent protests that follow each judgment.
Street violence has been a useful strategy in the past to discredit the government and keep its votes at home. Somewhat unfortunately, the final verdict on the war crimes tribunal will lie not in a public understanding of the verdicts, but rather in the electoral results later this year.
This is an imperfect handling of a historically crucial issue to Bangladesh and will hopefully achieve greater legitimacy in the future.