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The war crimes tribunal of Bangladesh is attempting to confront atrocities buried since 1971. But can the ghosts of the past be laid to rest in times of such violence?

During the war of secession from Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis were raped and slaughtered in one of the worst humanitarian disasters of South Asian history. The International Crimes Tribunal was set up shortly after the war, but then disbanded when the governing Awami League was ousted from power in a military coup. Justice for the casualties of this young democracy has since long been overdue.

Following a landslide victory in the 2008 elections, the Awami League met with popular and international support to reinstate the tribunal. But Bangladesh is still building the cohesive society and independent institutions required for it to impart justice. The trials this year of thirteen alleged collaborators have led to rebukes by the international press of political meddling, and a series of violent national protests in which over a hundred people have already died. These hurdles are alarming. But for the families that have bled for the independence of their nation, so is the prospect of justice being snatched away after decades of deferment.

Reconciling Bangladesh with this tragic moment in its history was never going to be easy. The country was born in the trauma of civil war and divided from its inception on matters of national identity and secularity. Its predominantly Muslim population is still split today between reformists defending democracy and Bengali culture, and conservative Islamists demanding religion play a greater part in matters of state and law. The first group backs the ruling Awami League, while the second tends to vote for the Bangladesh National Party or its harder line partners such as Jamaat-e-Islami. The recent outbursts of street violence take their roots in this polarization of Bangladesh’s society and politics. But the shortcomings of the war crimes tribunal are also providing sparks in an already volatile atmosphere.

Over the coming week, Dravidia looks into the history and controversy of Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal. Can this attempt at justice help instate the peace which the country bled for in 1971 – or will it finish ripping the fragile fabric of society?

 

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