On the verdict

Posted in politics, Rights by jrahman on November 20, 2009

I missed the liveblogging of the final verdict on the 15 August trial.  Perhaps just as well, because this has given me the time to gather my thoughts.  It goes without saying that I unambiguously and unreservedly welcome the verdict.  This post is going to touch on some points that I feel have not been covered well in the discussions in the blogosphere, print media, or in television.  Not being in Dhaka, I am in no position to reflect the public mood.  But I claim that be a good thing because it allows me raise contrarian points and uncomfortable questions. 

My main points are these.

1. Many have said ‘this is not about vengeance, it’s about justice’.  What is the theory of justice here?  How does that relate to death penalty? 

2. I offer my personal views, where vengeance is a part of justice.  But more importantly, we need our leading thinkers to spell out their concepts of justice for the People’s Republic.

3. ‘The nation gets a sense of closure after 34 years’ — goes a very common refrain.  I think this notion is profoundly wrong.   

4. Real closure may come when the generations whose hands are bloodied are gone, but only if we actiely make the right choices.  We made a right choice with this trial, and that’s the real significance here, not some confused notion of justice or closure.

These contrarian views may hurt people’s feelings, for which I apologise.  But these are important issues that we must reflect on, and this sombre morning is as good a time as any.

1. What is justice?

This may appear to be a philosophical question that would get branded as atlami in Dhaka.  But we, the self-proclaimed thinking class (and human rights activists), do have to ask ourselves this question.  It is easier to answer what is injustice — a 10-year old boy was shot in cold blood, that was injustice.

Let’s be specific here, is ‘death penalty’ justice?  It is easy enough to say ‘I am against death penalty’ when the condemned person is guilty of killing the spouse over an extramarital affair.  It would require someone courageous to say ‘I am against death penalty, even for those who committed the 15 August massacre’.  

If you cannot say this, then on what do you base ‘justice, not vengeance’ claim?

2. Vengeance is (partly) justice.

I can offer my personal view.  I believe when a wrong is done, the victim has a right of reparation or compensation — and one can very well call this vengeance or retribution.  In addition to this private right of the victim, there is a public need for deterrence, and the perpetrator’s right to repent and seek a second chance.  To me, vengeance is a part of justice, and the state’s role is to reconcile the victim’s right with that of the perpetrator’s in the context of the public need. 

Specific to the 15 August case, the condemned men had ample time to repent and seek forgiveness.  And the public need of deterrence is clear.  These men massacred the country’s president and changed the nation’s political trajectory at gun point.  By hanging them, 34 years after the event, the state sends out a clear signal to the would be coupmakers that ‘be ware, you too may end up this way’.  Therefore, I have no qualms for supporting the death penalty here, and I do believe vengeance aka reparation is part of the equation — it is not up to any of us but the victim to forgive these men.

My views here are heavily influenced by Islamic study circles I frequented in a misspent youth.  Bangladesh isn’t an Islamic Republic.  Its justice system isn’t founded on the tenets of Islam or their interpretation by Islamic scholars and philosophers.  Notionally, Bangladesh gets its legal system from the British. 

What is the theory of justice here?  When someone says ‘justice, not vengeance’, what do they mean? 

If we don’t discuss this question, then we will neve eradicate crossfire aka gunfight aka extra-judicial killing in Bangladesh.  If we don’t discuss what justice means in Bangladesh, we will never stop torture, or abuse of those who are less powerful than we are.  Until there is a discussion about it, ‘justice, not vengeance’ will be just a rhetoric.

3. It’s not a closure for the nation.

The victims of the 15 August massacre may get a closure when they have the verdict implemented, and the perpetrators executed.  But let’s not equate one family with our republic.  Bangladesh has many festering wounds that this verdict will not heal.  By saying that as a nation we get closure, we are making a profound mistake. 

War crimes, jail killing, political assassinations under the last elected government, torture and state sponsored violence after 1/11, Pilkhana — where do we stop?  And this doesn’t even include the crimes committed in the name of, and by, the majority Bengali Muslims against Biharis, Hindus, and Paharis. 

On what ground do we say that 15 August was above all those other injustices?  We can say that a journey has to begin somewhere, and this was as good a place as any.  But let’s not call this a closure. 

4. It’s the end of the beginning.

The real closure may come some day when events like the 21 August attack or Pilkhana will not remain in a shroud of secrecy.  But there is no certainty that we will ever get that.  We, as a people, need to make the right choices for that. 

The real significance of this trial, and the verdict, is not that it has provided a sense of justice and closure to the victims.  The real significance is that this has been done through as close to a transparent process as is possible in a country such as ours.  This wasn’t done through a military tribunal.  This wasn’t done through some kangaroo court.  The killers were not crossfired. 

If the 15 August killers can be tried in an open, transparent manner, then so can the war criminals, or 21 August attackers, or the Pilkhana killers.  This is the real significance.

When the United States entered World War II, Winston Churchill said: This isn’t the end, not even the beginning of the end, but it’s the end of the beginning.

Let the verdict be the end of the beginning for Bangladesh.

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9 Responses

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  1. Unheard Voice said, on November 20, 2009 at 10:18 am

    […] (More at Mukti) […]

  2. Syeed said, on November 20, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Justice and Vengeance is NOT the same and the difference is in their respective “aims”.
    Aim of vengeance is to satisfy the anger of victim’s closest ones, whereas aim of Justice is to make sure similar crime never occur in the society again.
    Vengeance usually comes from the victims, whereas justice is chiefly collective or governmental. Vengeance can be secret or covert, but justice must be open.

    It can be argued that vengeance is a form of Justice which prohibits further crime and satisfy the victims. However, one needs to differentiate the aim of vengeance (satisfying the victims), from the aim of justice (establishing law and order).

    Suppose “Karim” has been killed by “Nandailer Younus” and after his death, Karim’s brother Rahim and the government is looking for the killer. If Rahim can manage to find the killer and secretly kill “Nandailer Younus” to satisfy his anger, then it is vengeance. If the government finds the killer and, through proper trial, executes him, then it is justice. Why?

    Well, if Rahim can prove that the death of “Nandailer Younus” was an accident, then it will do no good to caution other potential killers from doing such crime. Or, if Rahim plays it the RAB way, i.e. the court will know it was an accident/cross-fire (which will acquit Rahim) but other potential killers will know that it was ‘eye for an eye’, even then it will not help the society. Other potential killers will then judge the retaliation power of the potential victim before the strike. That means, only those with higher retaliation power will stay safe, but vulnerable citizen will remain in danger.

    But if Justice is served, potential criminals will realize that you cannot commit the crime no matter what (while the victims can satisfy their need for revenge). Which means, Justice can satisfy the need for vengeance (and more), but vengeance cannot satisfy the need for Justice. Unlike Justice, vengeance often triggers a cycle of counter-vengeance.
    However, the sentiment of vengeance is not unexpected from the victim/victim’s family and it is quite understandable why someone will seek revenge. But if vengeance comes from government machinery, the result is abuse of power and trickledown effect of crime in the society.

    That makes the 19 November verdict all the more remarkable, where the head of the government herself was the victim party who chose the path of Justice, not vengeance.
    [all those vengeance-driven summary trials, court-martial, and government sponsored covert operations during the post-1975 coup -counter- coups didn’t do any good to the country).
    (Have already talked a lot, so resisting commenting on capital punishment.)

  3. kgazi said, on November 20, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    I can see exactly why Jyoti feels this trial was a ‘vengeance’. I hear many people express their dissent at this trial, feeling similar sense of AL vengeance on “AL’s trial”. The reason is clearly cos the assassination itself was Super-political, and aftermath of 1975 was also SUPER-politicized.

    Besides, those accused were tried once in court years ago, why need re-trial again ?? Because when AL is in power, its easier to find them ALL guilty?? Does AL manipulate court decisions when they are in power, because of AL’s ‘vengeance-ful’ emotions? Is there no way that any of the accused, not directly involved, may be given lesser punishment? Those raise questions of AL-influence in court trials, and neutrality issues remain questionable.

    OTOH, many books have, can, and will, be written on the assassination and its political reasons, justifications, timing, etc etc. Many folks (incl myself) avoided stuff like “UV Live Blog” intentionally, to avoid such politicization.

    However, and this is most crucial – true justice has been NECESSARY to uphold RULE OF LAW. The killers had SELF-CONFESSED in a major assassination, and therefore prosecution was necessary, whether or not it was politically justified is a different story.

    So, I believe this is a major victory for Rule of Law, (not necessary for AL), that self-confessed assassins have been convicted. NOW, the Nation will benefit significantly, if AL stops publicizing, and GLORIFYING the trials politically any further – but MOVE ON to address the millions of other trials and miseries that people are facing.

  4. jrahman said, on November 21, 2009 at 3:11 am

    Syeed, I didn’t say vengeance = justice. I said vengeance is part of justice, especially when there is capital punishment involved. Think of a different example.

    Younus kills Karim. Younus repents for this and seeks forgivenes. Karim’s brother Rahim forgives Rahim.

    But the government isn’t satisfied because of the precedence this creates for some other guy, say Yusuf, to contemplate murder. Is it justice to punish Younus to warn Yusuf?

    Kgazi, this wasn’t a retrial. The earlier trials found the assassins guilty and condemned them to death. These men had a right of appeal. When AL was out of power, the apeal wasn’t heard. It is extremely important that before we execute someone — even self-confessed killers of 10 year old boy and pregnant woman — that they are given every opportunity to appeal.

    • Syeed said, on November 21, 2009 at 4:51 am

      Yes, you are right that in some societies vengeance is seen as part of justice and you can tell that by the fact who is entrusted to offer forgiveness.

      In Iran, only families of victim can offer forgiveness in return for blood-money. There, vengeance is part of justice.

      But in some countries, vengeance is not part of justice and hence even the victim cannot withdraw charges once the District Attorney start pursuing the case. In these countries, governments think that the whole idea of Justice and rule of law will be jeopardized if forgiveness is exercised openly (for instance, Yousuf can threat Rahim to forgive Yousuf).

      • jrahman said, on November 21, 2009 at 5:30 am

        Syeed, this is precisely the discussion I believe is needed. What kind of a justice system do we want in Bangladesh? What’s the social contract?

        The current system, inherited from the British, isn’t about justice. British were not interested about justice in India, their laws were not about justice, they were about order. Their police force wasn’t about publice service, it was about maintaining their rule. That’s why they didn’t introduce jury trial, and we don’t have it.

        These days we hear a lot about going back to 1972 constitution. Well, that fine document took a lot of nice ideas from other countries and introduced them in Bangladesh without any regards to the Bangladeshi context. And then when Sheikh sahib found maintaining law and order difficult, he called in the army and started crossfire. That wasn’t enough, so he introduced emergency, then Bakshal. And even now, whoever goes to power says we need to kill these criminals, we need tough laws etc. And our intellectuals — academics and thinkers — spend their time praising their leaders instead of asking these questions.

        I am not arguing for an Iran-style system, though personally I find the Islamic system lot more appealing than the Anglo-Saxon one (I am not familiar with the European system). My point is, this discussion is long overdue.

  5. Mohammad said, on November 21, 2009 at 11:52 am


    “What kind of a justice system do we want in Bangladesh? What’s the social contract?” – It’s Constitutional Governance. Constitution is the contract between the state and the governed. Access to justice is outlined in the constitution as fundamental right for every citizen. Where we faulter is in failure to ensure independence of judiciary which is really the central of Rule of Law and justice.The VERDICT is a milestone achievement for rule of law, and I hope the government respects this and refrains from meddling in judicial processes. They can best demonstrate this by stopping withdrwaing corruption cases thru executive orders now ! And of course it will be a great gesture if the president stops allowing Pardons to absconding convicts.These will give us a head start.

  6. Kamal said, on November 22, 2009 at 6:27 am

    Justice must be done and also must be seen to be done. In this particular case the death penalty for self confessed killers must be the correct one. Whether an element of vengeance is also present is not relevant. It would be inhuman for there to be no sense of vengeance towards murderers who kills so many of one’s family members. I have absolutely no problem with the PM Hasina for having such feelings against the perpetrators.

    However, 34 years later we are looking at this with a different perspective. People of Bangladesh in 1975 was of course crying out for deliverance from a tyrant and his cronies who had let loose an evil force in the form of Rakkhi Bahini, rampaging through the country, torturing and killing any one suspected of being against the Government. Do the families of those victims have no right to justice? What about the victims of crimes before 16th Dec 71 and after? While we are all for the trials of War Criminals, who defines who or what a war Criminal is? Are you by definition not a war criminal if you fought for the Liberation? When Kader Siddiqui bayonets to death some rajakars with their hands tied behind their backs, is that not a war crime? I knew someone who came to do Phd here in UK who lost 11 members of his family in the hands of Freedom fighters following liberation. Did they get fair trials for whatever crimes they may or may not have committed? Will this guy ever get justice?

    I am afraid the world is full of examples where the powerful get vengeance in the name of justice while the poor downtrodden masses cry in vain for justice against the crimes of the same powerful authority. If we favour action in some cases and deny the same in others then we are nothing but hypocrites.

    Lastly, I am rather intrigued by the following sentence in jrahman’s write-up, “My views here are heavily influenced by Islamic study circles I frequented in a misspent youth”. What do you mean? What did you actually do when you attended these circles? How might you have spent the time better?

    With best wishes to you all,

    Kamal Ahmed

  7. On the trial « Mukti said, on July 8, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    […] that it will result in death penalty.  For some, this is a concern.  Not for me.  As I said here, I don’t have a problem with death penalty so long as the process of conviction is fair.  To […]

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