News / Asia

Bangladesh to Hold Trials for 1971 War Crimes

Bangladesh, four decades after the violent struggle that led to independence from Pakistan, is planning to hold trials for those accused of committing war crimes. The plans for what could be highly sensitive war crimes trials come as Bangladesh celebrates Friday its 39th anniversary of declaring independence from Pakistan.   

Bangladesh officials say those facing trial allegedly sided with Pakistan during the 1971 war of liberation. The government says defendants will be tried for crimes against humanity, genocide, murder, rape and arson.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed, speaking to VOA's Bangla language service, says justice has been a long time coming.

Ahmed says the long-held expectations of Bangladeshis for the tribunal are about to be fulfilled. He notes that the parties in the government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, campaigned on a platform of bringing war criminals to justice.

Ms. Hasina's father, Bangladesh's founder and independence war hero, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had intended to hold such trials before he was assassinated in a 1975 coup.

Prime Minister Hasina has long contended some of those behind the coup would have faced trial for war crimes. The subsequent government freed more than 10,000 war crime suspects.

There are concerns, however, the  tribunal could be used to extract revenge on opponents of the governing Awami League.

International Crisis Group Senior Asia Analyst Michael Shaikh, speaking from Chiang Mai, Thailand, tells VOA nearly all Bangladeshi governments have used the judiciary to get at political opponents.

"However, in this case, I think all eyes are on Bangladesh. This is a pretty incredible and important step for them. This has been a long-standing demand by countless Bangladeshis. Bangladesh should be given a chance to prove that it's willing to play by international standards with the judicial process," he said.

Tens of thousands of people in what was then East Pakistan took up arms to oppose Bangladeshi independence. Others who expressed loyalty to Pakistan were deemed as collaborators but were granted amnesty following the war.

The war - in which India, located between West and East Pakistan, provided financial aid and military support for the rebels - is believed to have left three million people dead.

Bangladesh says millions of people were displaced by the nine-month guerilla conflict and 200,000 women were raped. Rights groups have also alleged "ethnic cleansing" that targeted East Pakistan's Hindu minority.

Pakistan contends the issue of war crimes was settled in a 1974 treaty signed by it, Bangladesh and India.

Officials say the tribunal will be led by three judges, including a High Court justice.

The chairman, Justice Nizamul Huq Nasim, told the Daily Star newspaper in Dhaka the trials will be held in a way so that "the real culprits, and not a single innocent person, are punished."

The trials, which could begin as early as next month, are to be conducted by a 12-member panel of government-appointed lawyers.

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