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Eight years of war crimes trials

  • Published at 12:58 am August 18th, 2018
old High Court building
The old High Court building, in which the International Crimes Tribunal is housed Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

The Awami League-led government remained determined to hold the trials despite local and international pressure

Eight years into the operations of the war crimes tribunals, the trials of war criminals 39 years after the country’s independence are considered by the people to be one of the biggest achievements of the nation.

The Awami League-led government remained determined to hold the trials despite local and international pressure.

During the 2008 general election, the Awami League pledged to try the war criminals if it takes office. It won the race with an over two-thirds majority in parliament. It took the government a little over a year to set up the trial process.

Since the International Crimes Tribunal’s inception in March 25, 2010, the tribunals have delivered judgments in 34 cases against 83 war criminals. Among them, 52 were sentenced to death.

Then it handed down a life sentence to Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah, who was known as the Butcher of Mirpur during the war. A mass outrage ensued following the verdict, known as the Shahbagh Movement, forcing the government to bring an amendment to the laws allowing it to file appeals against the tribunal’s verdict.

The protests were fuelled by sentiments that anti-Liberation War forces had become too powerful in Bangladesh. Protesters added in demands to ban Jamaat-e-Islami, many of whose senior leaders have been found guilty of war crimes. Jamaat’s rise to power in the previous government as an ally of BNP had angered the young generation.

The Appellate Division eventually changed the tribunal’s verdict, handing the death sentence to Quader Mollah.

The war crimes trials have been consistently seen by the public as one of the three major achievements of the Awami League government, according to Nielsen polls. The majority of the respondents in those polls thought that the trials should go on.

The latest verdict was delivered on August 13, sentencing five Patuakhali men to death after the allegations of them participating and assisting the Pakistan army in the killing of 17 people, rape of 15 women, and torture of several others during the Liberation War in 1971 were proven beyond doubt.

The convicts are: Ishak Shikdar, Solaiman Mridha, Abdus Sattar Peda, Abdul Goni Hawladar, and Awal alias Moulvi Abdul Awal. All of them hail from different villages in sadar upazila.

According to the records kept by the tribunal’s prosecution team, the tribunal is currently holding the trial of 30 cases against alleged war criminals who were collaborators of the occupying Pakistan army. Many belonged to the Razakar, Al-Badr or Al-Shams forces.

In addition, the investigation agency of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) is currently conducting probes into 675 complaints of rape, mass murder, loot, arson, forceful conversion, and forceful migration committed by collaborators across the country.

Of the complaints, a total 450 which were raised by general people and victims were forwarded to the tribunal from different courts across the country, and the rest were directly filed by victims and families of martyrs.

The second tribunal, which was formed by the government in March 2012, is now non-functioning as of September 2015. Only Tribunal 1 has been functional since a reconstitution.

The first ever judgment was delivered by the tribunal against Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar on January 21, 2013, sentencing him to death. The convict, who was tried in absentia, did not file an appeal with the Appellate Division of Supreme Court as he did not surrender.

Quader Mollah was the first war criminal to walk the gallows. So far, the death sentences of six war criminals have been carried out by the government.

The trials have faced many challenges over the years. Witnesses were threatened and attacked. Jamaat called protest after protest against the verdicts.

The country had to tackle mayhem unleashed by the Jamaat and Shibir in 2013, after the tribunal sentenced Jamaat leader Delawar Hossain Sayedee to death. More than 65 people lost their lives in the atrocities. Later, he was sentenced to spend life in prison in an appeal verdict.

Currently, 24 condemned war criminals are in hiding to avoid arrest and execution. Nine of the war criminals among those who were sentenced to imprisonment till death are on the run. Law enforcement is yet to arrest a total 33 fugitives.

Following the verdicts of the tribunals, the apex court of the country has so far disposed of the appeals of seven war criminals.