Trial of war criminals: validation of our sovereignty
Mozammel H Khan
Sovereignty is a very highly talked-about issue in the political arena of Bangladesh, especially when AL is in the helm of the government. In the eyes of AL's political opponents, lack of sovereignty primarily refers to 'selling out the country' to our giant neighbour. It has played the sovereignty card so indiscriminately that the accusation has now become a 'crying wolf' in the eyes of our general mass. However, this time around, in the issue of trial of the alleged war criminals, a moment has arrived for the current government to validate the real sovereignty of the nation.
The trial of war criminals was an important element in AL's last election manifesto. Its resounding election victory was considered a strong endorsement for the promised trial. The endorsement was more glaring for the fact that a large chunk of our young voters, who, in spite of the fact, were made to learn the distorted and truncated history of our great war of liberation, came out in large numbers and voted for the AL-led alliance. Subsequently, a resolution was also unanimously passed on January 29, 2009 in the maiden sitting of the ninth parliament, albeit in the absence of the main opposition, calling on the government to ensure immediate trial of the war criminals. Planning Minister AK Khandaker, who was the deputy commander-in-chief of the Liberation War forces and currently the President of the Sector Commander Forum, which has been spearheading the nation-wide campaign to try the war criminals, thanked parliament for adopting the resolution. In his words, "People will sleep in peace tonight. For many, it's the beginning of the end of the torments they have been enduring for 38 long years." The Prime Minister echoing the sentiment of the house declared, "trial of the war criminals is now a demand of the nation."
As the resolution was passed in the parliament, the government (not AL anymore) is under an obligation to ensure the trial of war criminals. The commitment of the government was re-emphasized by the Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shafique Ahmed on February 3, 2009 when he said, "Since it's a resolution adopted by the legislature, the government will now assume responsibility for the trial."
In the last few months, however, there were conflicting and confusing statements from the responsible sources of the government about the process and time line of the appointment of investigation officers and public prosecutors. After the PM's visit to Saudi Arabia at the end of last April, it went all quiet in the trial front. There were a lot of speculations and rumours spreading around about the pressure of that powerful oil-rich Kingdom not to proceed with the trials. The firm basis of those rumours have been unveiled and attested, at last, though by not naming any particular country, by the General Secretary of AL and influential Minister Syed Ashraful Islam who on August 19, disclosed, "the government is facing pressure from different quarters at home and abroad for not trying the war criminals of 1971. We are facing obstacles in bringing the war criminals to trial...But we are putting in our best efforts to overcome the obstacles". The Minister must be given due credence for being partly transparent instead of letting the public continue to making second guess.
Having said that the 'internal' and the 'external' pressure that the Minister was referring to was nothing unexpected, the government, however, can never evade its responsibility to follow through with its own election pledge. In the internal front, apparently, the scenarios are more conducive that expected. The main opposition's fallacy that it could win an election with the support of the vote bank of the alleged war criminals, no matter what, has been proven wrong in the last general election. None of its spokesperson, as such, has so far issued any public statements either supporting or opposing the trial. Quite to the contrary, it has brought a momentous opportunity for the main opposition to challenge the current government to prove the existence of the sovereignty of the Republic, the lack of it they very often refer to, under the rule of their political adversary in following through its electoral promise of holding the trial. The government, on the other hand, has an obligation to divulge to the public the elements of the source of 'internal' pressure other than the alleged war criminals themselves.
The source of external pressure has never been a difficult riddle to solve. After the defeat of the occupation forces in 1971, a number of alleged war criminals found safe haven in that land and continued their anti-Bangladesh campaign, spreading lies and distortions, until August 15 of 1975. The country in question does not have any major investment in Bangladesh and as such does not control any components of Bangladesh's internal economy. However, just like any other oil-rich middle-eastern country, it employs a huge number of Bangladeshi work force. This leverage of a foreign country, no matter how powerful it is, should never be allowed to keep our government hostage in deterring the implementation of an overwhelmly endorsed election pledge of a freely elected government. We owe this trials to our martyrs as well as to our future generation. It is, indeed, a great challenge as well as an opportunity for the government of Bangladesh to validate the sovereignty of the Republic by neutralizing the pressure, through diplomatic acumen of the government leaders or whatever means appropriate, to establish that it is the people of Bangladesh themselves who hold the ultimate authority in deciding the course of their own destiny. In this context, it would be worthwhile to cite an incident that occurred in 1993-94 reflecting how a tiny island nation of Singapore kept her head high in upholding its sovereignty and dignity. An eighteen year old boy, happened to be a US citizen, was found guilty of making graffiti on a car. A court convicted him and awarded him 'ten rounds of caning', a common punishment for this kind of crimes in Singaporean law. The then US President Bill Clinton wrote to Singapore PM requesting him to commute the sentence on humanitarian ground considering the harshness of the punishment. The then senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, wrote back to President Clinton, shrugging off the fact that more than fifty percent of the investments in Singapore belonged to US companies, "if we yield to US pressure and make an exception to the verdict of our own judicial system, we lose our moral authority to govern ourselves." Should we not expect a similar affirmation for upholding the sovereignty and dignity of our nation vis-à-vis 'pressure from different quarters at home and abroad' from our honourable Prime Minister, the daughter of no other than our own founding father?
Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh.