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Bangladesh seeks answers over its bloody birth

Bangladeshis celebrating their national independence day on Thursday believe that the men guilty of horrendous crimes during the 1971 liberation war may now finally be brought to justice.

world Updated: Mar 25, 2009 13:02 IST

Bangladeshis celebrating their national independence day on Thursday believe that the men guilty of horrendous crimes during the 1971 liberation war may now finally be brought to justice.

The alleged war criminals - who sided with what was then West Pakistan - committed brutal murder, rape and arson as they fought against East Pakistan's struggle to become the independent country of Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's pledge to try the suspects helped her secure election victory in December, and she has already asked for the UN to help set up tribunals similar to those in Cambodia and Rwanda.

This week her government said it had prepared a list of those it wanted to try, and banned them from leaving Bangladesh.

It has not disclosed the identities, or number, of those on the list, though a privately-funded committee recently named 1,775 likely suspects.

Imtiaz Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said that while the promise of trials helped bring Hasina to power, she faced many problems in pushing the proposal through.

"The amount of time needed to hold a war crimes trial is huge," said Ahmed. "The process must be impartial, scientific and professional."

The suspects are thought to include leaders of the country's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, who are accused of links with the pro-Pakistani forces behind the wartime killings.

Hasina's Awami League party has long accused Jamaat members of being war criminals, and for the prime minister the issue is also a deeply personal one.

Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman -- the country's founding president -- led the independence movement but was unable to put the war criminals on trial before his assassination in 1975.

Most of the suspects he wanted to try were set free and Bangladesh has since struggled to come to terms with its bloody birth and the break-up of the subcontinent's Muslim homeland.

Last year Amnesty International backed calls for an investigation into the war crimes allegations, and the demand for trials gained momentum during last year's election, particularly among first-time voters born after the war.

Jamaat spokesman Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, who is thought by many to feature among the suspects, said the government was simply seeking "political mileage."

"The government has made war crime trials a politically motivated issue. It should be transparent and sincere," he said.

Shymoli Nasreen Chowdhury, now 67, was just 29 when her husband, one of the country's leading eye specialists, was killed in the closing days of the war.

Alim Chowdhury's mutilated body was found two days after fighting ended in late 1971, along with the bullet-riddled bodies of dozens of intellectuals and academics who supported Bangladesh's fight for independence.

For her, a war crimes trial cannot come soon enough.

She said that for the first time in many years she would celebrate independence day, which marks the beginning of the nine-month war in 1971, with some hope that justice would at last be done.

"I know who killed my husband but all these years there was no effort to bring them to justice. It's not just me I want justice for, it's the whole country. We have waited too long to see these butchers punished."