A Landmark Moment in Bangladesh’s Slow Crawl Toward Justice

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Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee, center, emerges from the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka on August 10, 2011. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images)

In Dhaka, a war crimes tribunal charged its first suspect on some 20 counts, including crimes against humanity. Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a leading figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s most important Islamist party, will now go to court Oct. 30. If you haven’t heard of the case, it’s not your fault — the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh is perhaps the least discussed mass slaughter in the history of the 20th century. According to some accounts, up to 3 million people were killed and hundred of thousands of women were raped in a nine-month orgy of violence as Pakistani soldiers and loyalists to Islamabad tried to quell the rebellion that eventually led to East Pakistan splintering off into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Now, three full decades later, the country is finally embarking on a process of investigation, shining a (narrow) light on the horrors of the country’s bloody founding. Sayedee is among only seven prominent figures who are slated to face the court, which was set up just last year. I’ve written extensively in the past on the reasons for Bangladesh’s shocking delay in reckoning with the atrocities of 1971 — much of which has to do with the country’s own tortured, divisive politics over the decades as well as the cynical Cold War-politicking of Western nations. The return to power in the last round of national elections of the Awami League — the political party most closely associated with the Bangladeshi freedom struggle — kick-started a long overdue move toward justice and reconciliation.

Whether either will come is uncertain. Critics say those in the dock are there in part because of the Awami League’s political vendettas. The vast majority of the military officers who participated in round-ups and summary executions of Bengalis agitating for freedom from Pakistan slipped away back to Pakistan or elsewhere and have disappeared or since perished. While virtually every Bangladeshi household has its own horror story to tell from 1971, evidence is thin on the ground. For a country resting upon an oft-flooded alluvial plain, there are no killing fields, only rivers and streams that sucked countless bodies out into the Bay of Bengal.

The Daily Star, an English language Dhaka-based daily, outlines what Sayedee stands accused of:

The charges include murdering civilians; collaborating with the Pakistani occupation army to kill and torture unarmed people, loot valuables and torch houses and other properties; persecuting people on religious and political grounds; and committing atrocities on the Hindu community. According to those, Sayedee was directly involved in abduction, confinement and raping of some girls. He raped a Hindu girl on several occasions. He also forced some Hindus to convert to Islam, an act the court considers a crime against humanity.

Sayedee, whose Jamaat party formed one of the main contingents of a coalition government less than a decade ago, denies all the charges. One can expect a tough, harrowing court trial to follow. Yet, as I wrote following a visit to a museum in Dhaka that commemorated those butchered in 1971, “the sheer scale of the carnage cannot be denied”:

Sydney Schanberg, then the New York Times‘s South Asia correspondent, described the month-long Pakistani crackdown in March 1971 as “a pogrom on a vast scale” in a land where “vultures grow fat.” (He would famously win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting five years later on Cambodia’s killing fields.) Passing through the charred husks of villages razed by West Pakistani troops, he heard whispered story after story of mass executions of Hindus, college students and anybody suspected of Bengali nationalism. Neighborhoods were gutted as Bangladesh’s main cities fell to a fifth of their existing population; 10 million refugees fled west to India. Almost 400,000 women were raped.

The horror unleashed by the West Pakistani army upon what was then East Pakistan — a twin unnaturally conjoined ever since the partition of British India — didn’t succeed. It was quelled following the intervention of Indian forces on the side of Bangladesh’s freedom fighters. But an independent Bangladesh still lurches from the trauma of such violence. Extrajudicial killings are a mainstay of political life, and, too often, the country’s dominant factions have treated politics as a matter of life and death. International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have issued calls urging Dhaka to carry out the tribunal procedures in conformance with international standards. If found guilty, Sayedee would face death by hanging. The book may close for him, but this bitter chapter in world history will remain tellingly unresolved.