It would seem the road to justice in Bangladesh has been laid in loops. The all-too familiar cycle of violence that has followed an International Crimes Tribunal verdict sentencing Ghulam Azam, prominent ideologue and former chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, to 90 years in jail reflects the tardy progress the country has made in reconciling with its past. Soon after the tribunal — set up to investigate mass atrocities committed during the war for Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 — announced its decision, Jamaat activists took to the streets, torching vehicles, blasting crude bombs, roughing up policemen and vandalising public property. Political violence is expected to escalate over the next few days, now that Jamaat secretary general Ali Ahsan Mojaheed has been sentenced to death by a similar tribunal. Whatever the Islamist party may say or do, most Bangladeshis wish to see 1971’s perpetrators brought to book. The protests in Shahbag earlier this year saw huge crowds demanding even capital punishment for those convicted of war crimes. The Jamaat, which saw in this groundswell of anger an existential threat, has since retaliated with violence.
To be sure, the dispensation of justice in these cases should neither be an exercise in retribution nor do away with the rule of law to assuage popular sentiment. Thus far, the ruling Awami League has failed to cultivate a modus vivendi between the belligerence of foot soldiers beholden to the Jamaat and the impassioned, but adamant, stance of those seeking death for the party’s former leadership. If the war crime trials are to bring closure to a horrific chapter in Bangladesh’s history, they must be seen at home and abroad as adhering to due process — in gathering evidence, protecting witnesses, and hearing both sides. The special tribunals, it has been alleged, have not fully complied with their rules of procedure as laid down in the International Crimes Tribunal Act, 1973. Far from addressing this serious concern, Prime Minister Hasina and her government have glossed over it, with a view to winding up the trials in time for the upcoming general elections. On its part, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has chosen, unconscionably, to side with the Jamaat in decrying the push for justice. Both mainstream political parties must realise electoral dividends are a cheap substitute for national reconciliation. Already the events of 1971 have demonstrated their potential to hold captive the popular imagination of younger generations. To politicise the trial of war crimes would be to let their polarising narrative persist — akin to opening new wounds while sewing old ones shut.