Do Bangladeshis want justice or revenge?

On Thursday, a Bangladeshi tribunal found Delwar Hossain Sayeedi guilty of crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The tribunal condemned him to death -- in stark divergence from their ruling in the case of  his political colleague, Abdul Quader Mollah, who received a life sentence from the same court. In response to the Sayeedi verdict, Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamist party in which both Sayeedi and Mollah hold prominent positions, stepped up its protests against the tribunals. The result was a spate of violence that has now left more than fifty people dead.

Since Mollah's trial on February 5, Shahbag Square in central Dhaka has been filled with thousands of Bangladeshis protesting against his sentence. But most of them are not Islamists acting in his defense -- they are, instead, actively seeking the death penalty for him and other convicted war criminals. To these Bangladeshis, who call themselves the Shahbag Square Movement, Mollah is known as the "butcher of Mirpur," and they are eager to see him to pay for his crimes with his life.

Both Mollah and Sayeedi have been tried for collaborating with the Pakistani army in what former U.S. diplomat Archer Blood famously called both a selective genocide and a "reign of terror." In a span of nine months, some 3 million Bangladeshis were killed. The atrocities committed included the mass rape of over 200,000 women.

Mollah was widely expected to receive the death penalty, so the milder sentence he actually received from the court caught everyone off guard. Given the "V for victory sign" he flashed upon leaving the court, apparently it surprised even him.

Photo by STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

The Shahbag movement kicked off the day of Mollah's trial and has been gathering steam ever since in an unexpected display of unity for the country. Some reports estimate the crowd filling the square at up to 200,000. The Shahbag protestors have maintained a remarkable commitment to non-violence, even despite the brutal murder of Rajib Haider, a blogger who sympathized with the movement. In a stirring speech, author Zafar Iqbal praised the Facebook generation for taking to the streets to demand justice for a history most did not directly experience.


The popularity of the Shahbag Square movement's call for the death penalty for war criminals shows just how deep the wounds of 1971 still run. Despite the overwhelming evidence of their responsibility for these crimes, the accused were allowed to pursue their political careers without any recriminations for 40 years. For the protestors, only execution can really serve to atone for the men's guilt.

But is all the bloodlust actually warranted?

Jamaat-e-Islami previously took to the streets against the tribunals, which they've denounced as politically motivated and part of a campaign to ultimately ban the party. There have also been irregularities with judges being pressured to make decisions hastily. Bangladeshis are also debating whether actively pursuing the death penalty is subverting true justice.

In a 2010 op-ed at the start of the trial, noted political scientist Jalal Alamgir made this argument:

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.

But pro-Shahbag citizen journalist, Hasan Ahmed, disagrees:

Well, when you hang somebody for killing 2 - 3 people it's contrary to human rights. But when GENOCIDAL MANIACS like Osama bin Laden are killed in an extrajudicial process, people around the world support it (myself included), all the governments support it. These alleged war criminals also orchestrated a GENOCIDE in 1971. These alleged war criminals helped killing 3 MILLION people, 200,000 women were raped.
The convicted war criminals, if they are given life imprisonment, could actually be pardoned by the president. This sort of 'political pardoning' has happened & nobody can be sure it won't happen again [if Jamaat-e-Islami comes back to power].

The tribunal appears to have listened. Sayeedi will hang, and there are eight more verdicts to be announced. Shahbag protestors have done an incredible thing by coming together to address their country's violent past. But one wonders whether more violence -- this time committed by the state -- is really an answer. 

Neha Paliwal is the Editorial Assistant for Democracy Lab. 

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images


Libya struggles to come to terms with the past

Libya is approaching yet another important threshold in its efforts to come to terms with the legacy of the Muammar Qaddafi dictatorship. Next week, Libya's interim legislature is preparing to vote on the draft of a law designed to ban politicians and officials who had close links with the old regime from high public office in the new Libya.

Many other post-dictatorial societies have struggled with comparable problems. Post-World War II Germany went through a dramatically uneven "denazification." The countries of post-Communist Eastern Europe embarked on a highly controversial process known as "lustration." Now it's Libya's turn. It's clear that there are plenty of challenges ahead.

Originally the idea was that the law would only target officials who helped Qaddafi to stay in power, committed crimes, or acted corruptly. But as it passed through committee in the General National Congress (GNC), the bill kept expanding: Now it encompasses 36 categories of civil servants. In addition to senior officials of the old government, the law includes editors of newspapers associated with Qaddafi, the presidents and vice presidents of universities, ambassadors, and even Libyans with dual nationality. The proposed bill will isolate officials from public office who worked with Qaddafi at any point from September 1, 1969 to October 30, 2011.

Despite the various arguments in favor of the isolation law, the whole issue has taken a disturbing twist. Each of the three main political blocs (Justice and Construction, National Front, and National Forces Alliance) in the GNC submitted their own versions of how the law should look. It quickly became apparent that each group was aiming to use the law as a tool to neutralize its opponents.

The law in its current form will also include many of the current officials in the GNC and the government, including de facto head of state Mohamed Al Magariaf (from the National Front Bloc), Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, and National Forces Alliance leader Mahmoud Jibril. All three of these men served in leading positions under Qaddafi before defecting and opposing him. The law will also include some of the Muslim Brotherhood's leading figures, but the Brotherhood seems to be willing to sacrifice some of its leaders in order to get rid of prominent rivals -- especially Mahmoud Jibril, a leading secular politician who is popular among Libyans. As a result, the Islamists are pushing for the isolation law to be approved. If the law in its current form is approved, it will immediately create a political and institutional vacuum in Libya.

Libyan activists and civil society organizations such as Lawyers for Justice in Libya have expressed concerns. They're urging the GNC to respect human rights and the rule of law and to prevent the law from being used as a tool for retribution and revenge. In addition, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement last month that urged the GNC to "define explicitly which positions under [Qaddafi] and which past acts warrant exclusion from public office, and for how long." HRW also warned that "vague terminology" would enable the law to be used for partisan purposes. Mustafa Abduljalil, a leader of the previous post-revolutionary government, has drawn attention to the same issues.

Abduljalil, also minister of justice under Gaddafi's regime before defecting in the early days of the revolution in 2011 to form the NTC with Mahmoud Jibril and others, spoke out against the isolation law in a recent TV interview. Abduljalil described the law as a battleground between political parties, one where the parties are now trying to topple each other after toppling Gaddafi. He also stated that those pushing for the law are targeting Mahmoud Jibril in particular due to his wide popularity among Libyans -- a factor that largely prevented the Islamists from surging to victory in Libya's general elections last year.

Hasan Al-Amin, a leading human rights activist within the GNC and a member of the committee that drafted the law, said in a recent newspaper interview the parties pressured them to work fast, and that this led to a badly written bill. Now the GNC is passing the draft bill along to the legal and constitutional affairs committees for revision. The present version proposes that those affected will be isolated from leadership roles for a period of ten years; but Al-Amin stated that many GNC members say that five years should suffice. According to the national political roadmap adopted by the former transitional government in 2011, the law must be assured of constitutional immunity (in other words, the supreme court will not be allowed to assess its constitutionality). Such an amendment will require the approval of two-thirds of the members of the GNC for passage. Since the law targets many of the GNC members, though, it's highly unlikely that they will vote "yes."

The law in its current form would undermine current efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Libya. It would polarize politics and society, hindering Libya's transition to democracy and rule of law. This seems particularly risky in light of the fact that the country right now has no mechanisms or institutions to guarantee that such a law will be enforced justly. Without such safeguards, Libya's isolation law runs the risk of paving the way to a new tyranny.  

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here

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