SHAHIDUL ALAM explains why for the past month, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis have filled Shahbagh Square, demanding justice for crimes committed in 1971.
The year 1971 was seminal for Bangladesh. We had been denied our right to self-rule since the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. In March of ’71, the Pakistani military, supported by China and the United States, initiated a bloody suppression of 75 million Bangladeshis. Millions fled the murderous onslaught and sought refuge in India.
Militias affiliated with the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami collaborated with the Pakistani military. They informed on, hunted out, and participated in the rape, killing and torture of ordinary citizens. They targeted hundreds of intellectuals, who were killed in cold blood.
After Bangladesh achieved independence, with help from India, in December 1971, the new government promised to punish the razakars, or collaborators.
We all knew who they were. But realpolitik in a young nation surrounded by powerful neighbors inevitably led to compromises. Bangladesh’s founding leader, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, set up special tribunals to try the collaborators. Several thousand cases were filed, but the quest for justice was derailed in late 1973 when Sheik Mujibur declared a general amnesty for the collaborators against whom trials had not yet been initiated. Two years later, he was assassinated, and a series of military coups followed.
Only in 2010 was a tribunal at last established to investigate the 1971 war crimes. It delivered its first verdict last month, sentencing a former Jamaat member, Abul Kalam Azad, to death. In a second decision, on Feb. 5, it sentenced a top current Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, to life in prison — a sentence the protesters regard as far too lenient.
Jamaat belongs to an opposition coalition led by the Bangladesh National Party. There is widespread fear that if a new government comes to power in approaching parliamentary elections, it will pardon Mr. Mollah, Mr. Azad and other Jamaat members still facing trial — allowing the collaborators of 1971 go free once again. The current government has set a dangerous precedent: Since 2009, Ms. Hasina has pardoned some 20 death-row convicts, including hardened criminals charged with grisly murders.