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
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.