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Bringing Bangladesh’s war criminals to justice was meant to help reconcile a tense and polarized society. Instead, citizens from both sides of the political divide have taken to the streets in violent protests against its verdicts.

Bangladesh has been torn from its birth on matters of culture and identity, in particular on the place that Islam should occupy in state affairs. Lately, tensions have escalated as mobs gather with increasing frequency in the capital’s Shahbag Square. Several outbursts of violence have followed verdicts passed by the International Crimes Tribunal. International observers blame the trials for being politically biased and shaking the confidence of Bangladeshis in their justice system. But foreign views tend to overlook the full context.

As described in Justice on trial in Bangladesh, this year’s antagonism on the streets of Dhaka is rooted deeper in history than in the recent court proceedings. Likewise, the perceived bias of the tribunal may owe more to the country’s past than meets the eye. The reason for which the tribunal has tried so many members of Jamaat-e-Islami – a prominent rival to the Awami League – is that the party openly backed the Pakistan army during the War of Liberation. Members of Jamaat were honorably concerned that Bengali separatists would instate a secular government and turn away from Islam. The tribunal in no way condemns this position. But unsurprisingly, allies of the main war crime perpetrators are suspected of being more closely involved in the atrocities than the Awami League members who were fighting them. Direct equality on this front would amount to requiring the Nuremberg trials to prosecute even numbers of allies and fascists.

Pro-independence militias certainly imparted their share of persecution and misery during the War of Liberation, most tragically against Bangladesh’s Bihari Muslim minorities. But the reason those responsible are not standing trial today may have more to do with numbers than political affiliation. The overwhelming majority of war crimes, victims, perpetrators and, more importantly, witnesses relate to retributions by the Pakistani army and their collaborators on the general population. That is not to say that justice ends here. But it makes sense that this is where it should start.

 

There is no excuse for court irregularities and the Bangladeshi justice system has to answer for its growing pains in matters of collusion, hasted trials and intervention from the Supreme Court. But accusations of political or anti-Islamic rulings of the International Crimes Tribunal do not do credit to the thin line that it has traced through this country’s explosive terrain.

Next week, Dravidia writes on the Hartal – general strikes against courts and governments. These violent demonstrations are multiplying, but why?

 

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