The politics of the Trial
If you are following David Bergman’s coverage of the trial and remain hopeful about how it will all end, then I salute your upbeat nature on life. I am a bit less cheery. I’ve always figured that political theater would be a big part of any trial. But to call the circus in Dhaka a kangaroo court would be an insult to the Australians.
While there is plenty of blame to go around for why the trial is failing — subject of a post in its own right — it occurs to me that the political fall outs of the trial is not quite as clear cut as one might think.
Firstly, the trial — successful or otherwise — will have little impact on electoral politics. We now have three years of polling evidence — war crimes trial is not an important issue for the voters. AL will not pay any electoral price for failing to successfully conclude the trial.
But this doesn’t mean AL reaps no political benefit from the trial. For one thing, it’s a great political diversion. Every time something inconvenient happens, the trial can be counted on to provide a story about the hated razakars.
But there are limits to this. You can’t arrest top razakars once they are already behind bars. The next sets of ‘big news’ will be when these men are convicted, then sentenced, and finally (presumably) hanged. But before any of those can happen, there are all sorts of things like hearings and cross-examinations. And the more such things happen, the more it becomes clear that the trial is a farce.
Does Awami League really benefit from the press coverage of the actual trial process? Perhaps this explains the recent huffing and puffing about ‘trial obstruction’?
The thing is, the more the government tries to crack down on people like Nic Haque, or the more there are op eds in New York Times exposing the trial’s weaknesses, the better the PR war will be for Jamaat (this is a post on politics — goes without saying that there are serious freedom of speech issues here).
Let’s approach the recent developments from the perspective of an interested, but not emotionally invested, foreigner. What such a person is likely to see is that a few old men — mostly from the country’s second largest opposition party — are being locked up in a rather unfair manner. Our interested observer might be told that these men are religious extremists. But having been chastised in the past for painting all Islamist politicians with the same ‘jihadi’ brush, our observer will probably dig a bit deeper and find that these old men have quite regularly participated in parliamentary politics, becoming legislators, and even ministers. Further, it may appear that even though the government these men served in was considered notoriously corrupt, they themselves were squeaky clean.
At this point, the observer is probably informed or reminded about the current government’s political vendetta as evidenced by l’affaire Yunus.
Dear reader, Jamaat has been preparing for the possibility of a trial for a long, long time, and it was always going to be difficult to convict the alleged war criminals. But the government’s recent media handling just makes it easier for the accused to claim their victimhood.
More broadly, AL doesn’t seem to realise that in the post Arab Spring / post Turkish ascendancy world, playing the ‘Islamist card’ doesn’t confer the same benefit as it did in the aftermath of 9/11. Jamaat had been trying very hard to style itself as a moderate Islamist party. The mishandling of the trial by the government simply makes it easier for Jamaat to portray itself as a persecuted moderate Islamist party.
While AL might not benefit as much from the media coverage of the trial, there is another way through which AL thinks it might benefit politically. While the general voter might not care much for the trial, it is self-evident that a large portion (majority?) of the chattering classes care a lot about the issue. If all the political chicanery fails, and AL finds itself in the opposition, it will have left the next government with a difficult task.
Particularly, suppose a future BNP government lets the tribunal continue in its bumbling way. If the accused are acquitted because of lack of evidence, AL will have an issue to launch street agitations with the chattering classes’ support. It’s of course hard to see BNP actually going along with the hanging of its own MP, but will it go along with keeping the Jamaat leaders indefinitely in jail? How will that work if they expect Jamaat-Shibir cadres to help out with the inevitable street showdowns in the coming election (and related street violence)?
Is it any wonder why it’s hard to figure out what BNP’s stance is on the issue? I mean, Moudud Ahmed says the trial should be scrapped, but Ruhul Kabir Rizvi says ‘there was a typo’. Jamaat participates enthusiastically in the road marches and street programmes, but rank-and-file BNP supporters vent against Jamaat in the cyberspace.