The politics of the Trial

Posted in politics by jrahman on February 20, 2012

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

For anyone believing that AL sincerely wanted a trial, recent developments seem mad, and maddening.  But there might be method in this madness.  AL may not get as much near term political benefit from this, but it will probably leave BNP relatively worse off.  And politics being a zero sum game, AL can win by losing less than BNP. 
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3 Responses

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  1. kgazi said, on February 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    jrah – “but it will probably leave BNP relatively worse off” ?? What gives you that notion?
    If the trial leaves any footprint of a Kangaroo Court, then AL will be permanently seen as a joke, as they are already a huge item of national fun !!

    The news today “PM seeks int’l support” and “Govt not bound to enact law (on banning criticism of the trial)” makes the whole thing not only a joke, and diversion, but it confirms the govt’s bankruptcy of leadership & nationbuilding knowledege.

    It is this perpetuation of admin bankruptcy (through trials and bhasha as smoke-screens for failure), that will cause the crumbling crash of the AL Empire !!

  2. Fugstar said, on February 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    You are right, this is an insult to kangaroo kind and the blessed animal kingdoms.

    I do not think that the Jamaat are nearly as prepared as you give them credit for, but understand that your main audience for this is the AL aligned. I feel quite sad for them, you dont write how their other leaders are being charged spuriously with rubbish, killed in places, their hard built health and educational institutions dokholled.

    I hope that Bangladeshi’s from all the political streams will see through whats going on and delegitimise the state’s single narrative.
    The desire for the accused to actually have a fair hearing and trial does not make you a jamati or a razakar. I wonder if bergman stands by the veracity of the content of that documentary he made, or whether not he would bracket it with error bars.

    Its interesting that you post just after the contemptuous court case. I hope other’s feel encouraged to challenge the silencing and our very problematic prejudice on the whole issue. Then we might actually know what really happened, on record, before everyone who might have been privy to decision spaces is no longer with us.

  3. tacit said, on February 20, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Any discussion of the trial has to start with the sheer incompetence that Awami League has displayed so far. Quoting David Bergman:

    “There are a number of points to be made about the opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention which ruled that that the manner in which the International Crimes Tribunal detained without charge one Bangladesh Nationalist Party and five Jamaat-e-Islami leaders was arbitrary and a breach of international law.

    To me, what is remarkable – putting to one side for now whether one agrees or not with the working group’s opinion – is that the government did not respond to the UN Working Group…

    When I first contacted the foreign ministry which was perhaps 48 hours after the report was put in the public domain, the ministry appeared not even to have been aware of it.

    When, the Ministry under my prodding did find out about the report, they appeared supremely unconcerned that the Working Group had published an opinion without having had the benefit of the government’s response. The foreign ministry did not criticise the opinion, it was not clear whether it even had a copy of it. A senior official said that the working group would publish the government’s response in due course, and that seemed to be sufficient for them.”

    I do hope that the government enacts a law to prosecute those who have obstructed these trials. Sheikh Hasina will be an excellent person to prosecute under that law.

    As for BNP, I understand that their reaction to this trial, just like President Obama’s stance on gay marriage, is “still evolving.” But they need to evolve faster and come out and declare that if left to them, the trials will continue exactly as now, with the same judges and the same prosecutors. Those convicted of the murder of Sheikh Mujib were not given bail and allowed to flee in 2001 – 2006. Those now facing trial for war crimes will have to win their freedom through legal means.

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