|"Guerrillas beat people suspected of collaborating with pro-Pakistan militias in 1971 during Bangladesh’s war for independence, a conflict that may have killed more than one million people." (Horst Faas and Michel Laurent/Associated Press)|
By Lydia Polgreen
The New York Times, March 5, 2011
"In the last days of the bloody war that created this nation out of the eastern half of Pakistan in 1971, a gang of men abducted Dr. Alim Chowdhury, an eye surgeon and independence activist, from his home. Three days later, his battered body was found in a mass grave, his eyes gouged from his head. His killers, members of a pro-Pakistan militia, were never punished. Moulana Abdul Mannan, the man who confessed to orchestrating the killing, according to a government investigation, went on to become a cabinet minister and member of the Bangladesh Parliament. He died in 2006. Now, 40 years after Bangladesh's independence struggle -- one of the last century's most wrenching conflicts, whose death toll may have exceeded one million people -- the government here is seeking to prosecute individuals accused of atrocities like the one against Dr. Chowdhury. The effort has touched a raw political nerve here and illustrates a conundrum of international law: Can a country, particularly a young and poor one, fairly try its own citizens for crimes against humanity? Many of those accused of atrocities are not only still alive, but are also among the leading members of two of the main opposition political parties and have enjoyed long stints in power. Six men have been arrested in connection with various crimes of the era, all of them major political figures. The government hopes to try them in a tribunal of its own creation in the coming months.
The Bangladesh tribunal is being closely watched, and its outcome could have wide implications. Developing countries whose governments have been accused of atrocities, from Sudan to Sri Lanka, have argued that international tribunals are selectively applied to poor nations and represent a new form of imperialism. A successful, fair and transparent trial in Bangladesh could be an important model, international justice experts say. But it will not be easy. Indeed, the whole concept of international justice rests in part on the reality that in the aftermath of a horrendous conflict, national courts are likely to be too politicized to deliver impartial justice. 'From a human rights perspective, you want the national authorities whose job it is to punish these crimes to be able to do it,' said Richard Dicker, an expert in international justice at Human Rights Watch. 'But that exists in tension with the overarching political imperatives.' The quest for justice is particularly problematic in Bangladesh, where politics is a deeply personalized, polarizing business, and almost all of the accused are political enemies of the current government, led by Sheik Hasina Wazed of the Awami League Party. Government officials argue that the trials are necessary and long overdue. [...]"