On the trial
By the trial, I mean the trial against those alleged to have committed crimes against humanity in 1971 — though this clarification should be redundant to anyone following Bangladesh, as if there can be any other trial?
In recent weeks, I have been asked by a number of people whose opinion I value dearly to state clearly my views on the trial. The shortest answer is, of course, with no equivocation whatsoever, that I am for trial.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that — and the longer answer, taking into account these nuances, is over the fold.
Firstly, what do I want from the trial? I don’t think I can do better than my fellow Drishtipat writer Jalal Alamgir:
Although local collaborators will take the stand, our real goal should be to let the world know, through an open and fair process, who was responsible for the genocide, even though they may be outside our legal jurisdiction. A new generation of Pakistanis may then hear about a version different from what they have been told. Americans may learn about the dishonorable role of their erstwhile leaders. Even Bangladeshi schools may begin to discuss 1971 in open terms.
That is why the trials, however limited, must proceed. Capital punishment, while entertaining some trigger-happy activists, will only derail us by refocusing attention on the verdict rather than the proceedings. It will invite controversy; it will alienate madrassas, a crucial audience; and it will greatly reduce the international acceptance of the trials.
We must not spoil this momentous opportunity. If the trials are able to expose the perpetrators and collaborators of genocide, and in the process shame them permanently in the face of truth, they will achieve far more success than what is offered by summary punishment. They may even help us escape the cycle of convenient partnerships and celebratory vengeance that marks our political culture.
Beyond this, there are a few questions I have been asked, where the answers are often less-than-clear.
First there is the issue of how I want the process to run.
In principle, I am comfortable with the idea of a Tribunal that collects information and charges the key figures who planned and executed atrocities in 1971. Of course, the Pakistani officers who were the real ringleaders are at the moment beyond our reach. And there is an argument about ‘if Pakistanis can’t be tried, why bother with the local collaborators’. My friend Syeed Ahamed has provided a thorough history of the trial process in the 1970s (see here and here), and I believe the only way to get to the Pakistani ringleaders is through a local trial.
On the related question of whether such a trial should be limited to the senior leadership of the collaborating forces like Al Badr (as opposed to opening it to the rank-and-file foot soldiers) — I believe that a bottom-up process will be full of witch-hunt and political repression (not that a top-down process is immune from this: see below). Therefore, I want to see the surviving senior Al Badr and Razakar leadership charged with carefully constructed cases, and then let the process run through the tribunal — the trial process will bring out the truth, which as noted is more important to me than punishment.
Regardless of what I want, it is clear that a large section of the pro-trial activists want punishment. And if the process runs transparently, there is a strong likelihood 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 quote what I said then:
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.
A far more serious concern to me is the politicisation of the trial.
There is no getting around to the fact that any trial process, no matter how focussed on the truth as opposed to punishment, will put to dock politicians who are opposed to the current government. Even a government that is not tainted by political oppression will have to work extremely hard to show that trial is not about political victimisation. The process will not only have to be beyond reproach, it will have to be perceived as beyond reproach.
Let me note two points in this regard:
- nothing is above politics — if the BNP could get political mileage from allying with the war criminals in the past, then it has to be prepared to face the downside of that alliance;
- but that said, if the Awami League puts political expediency above any commitment to the trial (whether focussed on punishment or the truth), then it will have done both the country and itself a huge disservice — and anyone who refuses to protest the risk of this are either blind with partisan logic, or are deliberately fooling themselves.
Moving to the next point,