Why war crimes tribunals are important for Bangladesh

Forty two years ago, Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, won its independence from an occupying Pakistani military force during the 1971 War of Liberation. The appalling loss of life as a result of genocide during the war caused pain that is still felt in Bangladesh today.  International Crimes Tribunals are now being used to achieve justice for the millions of victims and their families who suffered from the war crimes.

The nation of Bangladesh has been waiting four decades to bring justice to such crimes; the tribunals provide that opportunity while adhering to international standards of law.

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During the occupation, armed military incursions such as “Operation Searchlight” were carried out to suppress the Bangladeshi national movement and eliminate all political and military opposition. During these operations, Pakistanis and their collaborators systematically killed three million Bengali civilians, including an alarming number of women and children. Much of this behavior can be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The genocide committed by a small minority of ideologically motivated local collaborators and the occupying army is arguably one of the worst instances of mass killing since the Holocaust of World War II. The brutality of these crimes demonstrates a sheer lack of respect for the most basic standards of human decency and international war laws.

A fierce hostility towards East Pakistan and its cultural individuality reached a breaking point in 1970 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the nationalist Awami League, won the national election in all of Pakistan. Following his imprisonment, Pakistani forces initiated the genocide that would last from March to December in 1971 and leave an excruciating tarnish on Bangladesh history.

“Kill three million of them,” demanded Pakistan President Yahya Khan. Sadly, that actually happened.

At the start of the war, military forces targeted young Bangladeshi military men and police, Hindus, Awami League members, students and academics. Women were singled out during the second phase of the war and occupation. There are eyewitness accounts of Pakistani “rape camps” where at least 200,000 women were raped, 25,000 of which became pregnant. At the end of the war, following his nine month detention, Sheikh Mujib, the first leader of the independent Bangladesh, ordered the destruction of lists containing the numbers and names of rape victims to ensure that shame would not follow them throughout their lives.

One of the largest known genocide events of the war occurred on May 10, 1971, in Chuknagar, a small town along the Bangladesh-India border. Thousands of refugees were waiting in Chuknagar to cross the border. On that fatal morning, two trucks carrying Pakistani troops arrived and opened fire with machine guns and semi-automatic rifles. One account estimates ten thousand people were waiting to cross the border that day. The death toll was in the thousands.

In the final stretch of the war, when victory for Bangladesh was in sight, Pakistani forces made a determined effort to kill off as many intellectuals and future Bangladeshi leaders as possible.

An exact death toll as a result of the genocide remains unknown, but the Bangladesh government estimates a loss of at least one million and as many as three million civilians. It is impossible, however, to quantify the grief suffered by the Bangladeshi people as a result of the appalling actions of the occupying army.

The perpetrators of these horrific crimes have never been held accountable.  It took four decades for the perpetrators to be brought to trial in the International Crimes Tribunals (ICT-BD), which were established in 2010 by the Bangladesh government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. These trials are run under the strict and open rules of jurisprudence of international law. They are open and transparent to the public with ample protections for the rights of the accused. Fairly and openly, the Tribunals will bring justice to a country that has been deprived of it for too long.

Saiful Islam is a government prosecutor at Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunals.

 

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