Friday, January 10, 2014

Salim Mansur - Genocide and Justice in Bangladesh

Genocide and Justice in Bangladesh
by Salim Mansur January 9, 2014Gatestone InstituteNew York
It seems in modern times that the post-colonial history of Muslim societies has been over-determined by violence in the name of religion.Bangladeshis, despite significant internal opposition from militant Muslims supported from the outside, have shown a preference for their secular culture, based on language and not religion. Islamic solidarity, then as now, meant support for the architects of genocide, not for the victims.

Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, is in the news. Forty-two years after the country won its freedom, the nation witnessed the first of several convicted war criminals executed. The death by hanging of Abdul Quader Molla, a senior member of the Jamaat-i-Islami [JI], on December 12, 2013 was a cathartic moment for the long-suffering people of Bangladesh, and an event almost unique in the annals of Muslim history. Since 9/11, there seems genuine concern in the West and among non-Muslims about the nature of Islam and of Muslim history. Violence is neither unique to Islam nor among Muslims, but it seems in modern times that the post-colonial history of Muslim societies has been over-determined – again not uniquely – by violence in the name of religion.

There also seems genuine concern in the West about the role of religion in politics. World history, as Hegel noted, is a world court; and the evidence in this court discloses that the fusion of religion and politics has held for the longest time. As politics is about power, religion has undeniably been used as the most potent instrument of power. Abdul Quader Molla, arrested in August 2010, was one among several members of the JI, including its chief, Professor Ghulam Azam, indicted for crimes against humanity, and for aiding and complicity in committing such crimes, during 1971. This period in Bangladesh is referred to as the year of the "liberation war" against the armed forces of Pakistan, among whom members of the JI were notorious. The indictments were made under the provisions of the 1973 International Crimes Tribunal Act [ICTA], voted and passed by the first elected parliament of an independent Bangladesh. Those indicted were tried in special courts, known as the International Crimes Tribunals (ICT), set up under the Act.

In bringing to trial these Muslim collaborators and in making them confront their past – among the charges against Molla was the cruelty with which he beat a two-year old child to death after killing his father, mother and two sisters inside their home – a democratically elected government in a Muslim majority country for the first time in fourteen centuries of Arab-Muslim history arranged for, and brought to trial, Muslims charged with crimes against humanity.

The decision by the opposition party, the BNP, to undermine the legitimacy of the trials emboldened the JI and its supporters to turn violent. Their effort to intimidate the government and the majority of the people who supported the trials has exposed even further the authoritarian nature of their politics and their agenda of "Islamization" that most Bangladeshis reject. The trials have brought Bangladeshis not only to relive their torments of 1971, but also to take a stand for their secular culture against the intimidation and intense pressure of Muslim fundamentalists.

The Bangladesh story of genocide and struggle for justice has a wider significance. The manner in which the ruling elite in Pakistan unleashed the military to commit genocide against its own people, although physically removed in a territorially divided country, is revealing of the "not so secret anymore" history of Muslims and how Islam has been wilfully abused by those in power. It is the story of Muslim-on-Muslim violence from the outset of Islam; of the wars waged by Arab-Muslim caliphs beginning with the first, Abu Bakr, against dissident Muslims; of the cruelty that peaked, within fifty years of the Prophet Muhammad's demise, with the brutal murder of his grandson, Husayn, and his companions, by Muslim Arabs in Kerbala, Iraq; and of the silence thereafter among Muslims in general regarding crimes against humanity committed in their name wherever the flag of Islam was raised – as in Pakistan.

Unlike Bangladesh's story of genocide, war and liberation, tyrants in Muslim history have either been removed by equally tyrannical rivals, occasionally with outside help, or through fratricides – while the abuse of ordinary Muslims continues unabated. In Iraq, for instance, the trial of Saddam Hussein was only made possible because of regime change brought about by the Americans. The Iraqi tyrant was pulled out of a hole by American soldiers, and his trial and execution took place behind the security wall provided by American forces.

But in Bangladesh, Bengali Muslims fought back against their Muslim oppressors. They eventually succeeded with the help of India in defeating the Pakistani military and its fanatical Muslim collaborators of the East Pakistani wing of the Pakistani JI. There is a profound lesson in this aspect of Bangladesh history for Muslims everywhere. If Muslims truly want freedom and wish to write a new history of reform of Islam, they have to fight for it. They have not merely to defeat the fanatics of Islam, but, as a free people, bring them to justice; and as evidence of their freedom, demonstrate they can arrange fair trials for their oppressors in an open court, with rules of evidence, while maintaining the principle that those indicted are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

In modern times, even though the West has striven to distance politics from religion, the wall between the two remains porous. Nevertheless, the West holds itself as a mirror to the rest of the world, and especially to Muslims, of what modernity means in terms of separating politics and religion, and why such separation might be essential for cultures wanting to make the transition into the modern world of science and liberal democracy.

Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, and it has a great distance to go in building a modern society. Its tormented birth made its journey, confronting poverty and paucity of resources, even more difficult. But in its relatively short history as an independent state, Bangladeshis, despite significant internal opposition from militant Muslims supported from outside, have shown a rare preference for their secular culture, based on language and not religion. Bangladeshi (or Bengali) nationalism in its origin was secular, and the struggle for liberation was a defense of this secular nationalism for which the people paid a horrendous price.

The war crimes trials rekindled the memory of this secular nationalism, especially for the generation born after 1971; the war crimes trials reminded them that when religion is abused, as Muslim fanatics have abused it so egregiously, genocide comes perilously close. This is the lesson that Bangladeshis have taken to heart, and for this reason they might well be better positioned to make the journey into modernity than any other Muslim society, irrespective of how well some of them are endowed with wealth from natural resources. And this is the lesson of history that Bangladeshi Muslims, ironically as victims of genocide and of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, are well positioned to instruct others in the Arab-Muslim world.

There is a complex history here with a chain of actors and events; they turned the horrors unleashed by the military regime of a united Pakistan under General Yahya Khan against a defenseless civilian population in then-East Pakistan into an international crisis that included genocide, war and the break up of the largest Muslim country at that time.[1] In 1971, when Molla was a twenty-three year old activist in the student wing of the JI, he participated in the formation of a pro-Pakistani militia known as "al-Badr," a reference to Islamic history's first battle in which the Prophet Muhammad fought against his Meccan enemies. 

This newer al-Badr militia would be as notoriously violent and bloody-minded as were the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Molla came to be known as "Mirpurer Koshai," or the "Butcher of Mirpur," a township in the vicinity of Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital. Molla was charged with the responsibility for a list of murders that included: Meherunnesa, a poetess, her mother and two brothers; Hazrat Ali Laskar, his wife, two daughters and a two-year old son, while his third daughter brutally raped and left for dead survived and was called upon as a witness during the trial; Pallab, a student in Bangla College, Mirpur; Khandokar Abu Taleb, a journalist; and the mass killings of 344 people in Alubdi village in Mirpur.

Three justices of the Bangladesh High Court oversaw Molla's trial held by the ICT-2. The hearings took place in open court and under the provisions required by the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Bangladesh is a signatory of the Covenant, has ratified it, and the ICTA of 1973 with the Rules for the ICT were prescribed in accordance with the requirements of Article 14 of the ICCPR, ensuring that universally recognized safeguards be provided to the accused. The ICT also reminded the accused that while his rights to a fair trial were fully protected, the court was mindful, as is the ICCPR, of the rights of the victims to receive justice.

Molla's trial took place in an open court, his rights were fully accorded and he was represented by six lawyers. His defense was given ample time and opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses, to challenge and test the evidence, and to call upon a list of defense witnesses to refute the charges. In the verdict of the ICT-2, Molla was found guilty as accused and sentenced to life imprisonment. This judgment was appealed by the prosecution, and the Supreme Court, in overruling the ICT verdict, sentenced the accused to death. Molla's lawyers sought a review of the Supreme Court decision, but once the process was exhausted, he was sent to the gallows. Molla remained until the end defiant, displayed no remorse, mocked the court, denied any wrongdoing, and refused to ask for clemency by appealing to the president for leniency or forgiveness after the final verdict against him was handed down.

Bangladesh, despite economic gains in recent years by the private sector through the export of garments, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Politically, the country remains unstable due to the extra-parliamentary activities of opposition parties, punctuated regularly with nationwide strikes and organized violence against the ruling Awami League [AL] government, led by the Prime Minister Sheikha Hasina Wajed, which is viewed by the opposition as corrupt, highly partisan and vindictive.[2]

It was predictable that the execution of Molla would spark violence in Bangladesh, and deepen the existing political divide between supporters of the AL and those of the BNP. Apart from the personal animus between the two leaders, the political stance of the two parties towards the history and legacy of 1971 has, ironically, turned into a major point of contention and partisan hostility.

Most Bangladeshis, irrespective of their differences, recall the traumatic events of 1971 with horror and grief. The memory of the genocide perpetrated by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators continues to haunt the memory of the nation. In a comparative study of twentieth century crimes against humanity, Death By Government (1994), R.J. Rummel, one of the leading authorities on the subject, wrote:
"In 1971, the self-appointed president of Pakistan and commander-in-chief of the army General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan and his top generals prepared a careful and systematic military, economic, and political operation against East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). They planned to murder that country's Bengali intellectual, cultural, and political elite. They planned to indiscriminately murder hundreds of thousands of its Hindus and drive the rest into India. And they planned to destroy its economic base to insure that it would be subordinate to West Pakistan for at least a generation to come. This despicable and cutthroat plan was outright genocide."

In a world grown weary with mass killings and brutalities since the end of the Second World War, the dark, blood-soaked history of Bangladesh stands as one of the most gruesome between the Holocaust and the madness of Khmer Rouge killers in Cambodia during the years 1975-79. The official estimate of people killed in the genocide is around three million, of nearly a quarter million women raped, and some ten million people driven into India as refugees.[3]

For more than two decades after 1971, politics in Bangladesh was greatly unsettled by the after effects of the genocide and war. A poor, liberated country was driven to famine and endemic violence resulting from the legacy of destruction wrought on the economy, infrastructure, institutions, and the social fabric of the country. The situation was made even more grievous by the self-inflicted wound of political leaders unprepared and unsure on how to handle the escalating challenges of poverty, annual floods and public despair. As the country was reduced to surviving on international aid, corruption mushroomed. Henry Kissinger had contemptuously dubbed Bangladesh, upon its liberation, as a "basket case;" and the ineptness of its leaders, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, deepened the trauma of the people.

Eventually however, despite the immensity of the problems, the country began to turn around. The military regimes that followed the killings of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman gave way to democratic rule.[4] It was to the chagrin of the Bangladesh government that 195 Pakistani war criminals whom it had named and asked the Indian government to hand over for trial, were instead repatriated to Pakistan with the rest of nearly 100,000 prisoners of war whom India held after the surrender of the Pakistan army in December 1971. The repatriation took place under guarantees negotiated among the foreign ministers of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in what is known as the Delhi Agreement of 1974, which stipulated that the government of Pakistan would prosecute them. Pakistan not only reneged on the Delhi Agreement, it refused to acknowledge the role of its military-political elite and its armed forces in planning and committing genocide in Bangladesh. As of this date, Pakistan has not made any gesture of official remorse, nor has it offered any apology to the people of Bangladesh... Read more:


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Mahmoud Mohammed Taha (Author of Second Message of Islam); also known as Ustaz Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, was a Sudanese religious thinker, leader, and trained engineer. He was executed for apostasy at the age of 76 by the regime of Gaafar Nimeiry(See his Court statement)