Bangladesh: Bringing a Forgotten Genocide to Justice

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Lutfor Rahman / Reuters

Police arrest Maulana Motiur Rahman Nizami, center, chief of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, in Dhaka on June 29, 2010

Two years ago, TIME met Ali Ahsan Mojaheed at the headquarters of his far-right Islamist party, nestled amid a warren of religious bookshops and seminaries in Dhaka. He welcomed this reporter by peeling a clutch of ripe lychees. "Our fruit is the sweetest," said the secretary general of Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami, proffering a sticky hand. But the conversation soon soured. Asked about the traumatic legacy of Bangladesh's 1971 independence — when the territory then known as East Pakistan split from West Pakistan in an orgy of bloodshed — Mojaheed dismissed the need for a proper reckoning with the past. "This is a dead issue," he almost growled. "It cannot be raised."

But this month it finally has. Far from the protective, lackey-patrolled confines of his offices, Mojaheed and three other prominent Jamaat leaders (including the party's leader Maulana Motiur Rahman Nizami) are under arrest, appearing for the first time in a war-crimes court to face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and against peace — the last of which has not been invoked since the trials at Nuremberg. They rank among the topmost figures implicated in the systematic murder of as many as 3 million people in 1971 as the Pakistani army and ethnic Bengali collaborators attempted to quash a Bengali-nationalist rebellion. Their prosecution presents a watershed moment for this beleaguered nation of 160 million. A July 30 op-ed in the Daily Star, a leading Dhaka-based newspaper, says, "the trials will allow us to close the door, once and for all ... so that we are not forever fighting the battles of the past."

That past — Bangladesh's tangled history of violence and discord — goes a long way to explain how one of the 20th century's worst massacres is now largely forgotten in the rest of the world. Bangladesh's origins lie in two bloody partitions: first, in 1947, when British India was carved into two separate independent states, Muslim-majority Pakistan emerged more as a conceit of ideology than one of geography — its two wings separated by a thousand miles of India in between. The artificial union didn't last a quarter-century and Bengali separatism led eventually to a brutal crackdown by the West Pakistani–dominated army, aided by Islamists like Mojaheed and his colleagues, who were loyal to the greater Pakistani cause and who allegedly led or helped organize death squads that targeted Hindus, students and other dissidents. The intervention of Indian troops turned the tide and Bangladesh, as East Pakistan renamed itself, won its freedom in December 1971, its cities hollowed out, the economy in tatters and its population ravaged.

But the U.S.'s Cold War alliance with Pakistan's military dictatorship and the opposition of influential Muslim states like Saudi Arabia to Pakistan's partitioning meant there was little international pressure for a proper inquiry into the atrocities of the war. Within Bangladesh, coups, assassinations and vendettas came to define the political landscape. Successive governments became peopled by those with pro-Pakistani or Islamist backgrounds and connections. Mojaheed's Jamaat even found itself in power for a spell within a coalition government. "The primary issue for politicians was to survive," says Ali Riaz, a Bangladesh scholar and professor of political science at Illinois State University. "Thinking about the issue of murders and genocide became secondary."

Observers say not grappling with what happened has had a profound cost for Bangladesh. "It's incredibly damaging for society," says Caitlin Reiger, director of international policy relations at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York City. "Imagine the trauma of people who have suffered the loss of family members, rape and other violence and still have to live down the street from the likely perpetrators." Reiger and others claim this has led to Bangladesh's notorious culture of impunity, where corruption is widespread, extrajudicial killings by security personnel is still common and justice is known to come, if ever, oft-delayed and deferred. A tribunal, in theory, would lance the boil at the source of the rot.

In practice, though, these proceedings are far more fraught, especially four decades after the fact. Doubts still swirl around a U.N.-backed tribunal in nearby Cambodia that delivered its first verdict last week, sentencing the chief prison master of the Khmer Rouge — the radical, collectivist regime that oversaw the killings of nearly 2 million people in the mid-1970s — to 35 years in jail. The sentence could possibly be shortened to 19 years and has raised howls of protest from many survivors of the Cambodian genocide. Still, most observers have cautiously applauded this belated, imperfect justice — delivered despite years of foot-dragging by the ruling government, which has ex–Khmer Rouge cadres in its ranks.

In Bangladesh, there's little question about the political will of the present government, run by the secularist Awami League, a party born during the fight for Bangladeshi independence. But there are fears that it is using the trials to grind its proverbial ax and target political enemies. "The process has to be as transparent as possible," says Riaz. "If they fail to do this properly, it'll be a disaster for the nation." At the moment, the country's specially arranged International Crimes Tribunal is operating mostly on its own. As long as the country maintains the death penalty — executing just last year five men responsible for the 1975 murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founding father and also father of the current Prime Minister — assistance from the international community will be limited.

Experts imagine the trials in Bangladesh, like those in Cambodia, may take years. While the four now under arrest may be the most well-known participants in the genocide, countless others remain scattered across the country, abroad in Pakistan and elsewhere; extraditions look unlikely. Prosecutors will also be hampered by a woeful lack of documentary and forensic evidence. Low-lying Bangladesh sits atop an alluvial plain and some of the most common killing zones in 1971 were by water pumping stations and rivers, where bodies were literally flushed away into the sea.

Still, to this day, almost every single household in the country has a story to tell of a family member slain. Most counts of the genocide arrive between 1 million and 3 million people killed; 200,000 to half a million women were raped. In Bangladesh, perhaps more than in any other grim vetting of the past, raw personal testimonies may have to comprise the bulk of the proceedings. "This should never be about targeting one political group," says Reiger, "but about painstakingly following the evidence and seeing where it leads you." For a country seeking to put its ghosts to bed, the road ahead is still shrouded in shadow.