A. R. Chowdhury

Justice delayed, justice denied

November 19, 2012
November............Seventeen 16

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The ugly spectre of war criminals in our community is creeping its way back onto the national agenda. Efforts to hold some of the perpetrators of war crimes in 1971 accountable continue today, raising the questions: is it ever too late to pay for a crime? Is justice delayed justice denied?

A number of political leaders and commentators have suggested in recent months that the ongoing trial of Ghulam Azam and others on charges of crime against humanity would throw the country into further political instability. Several blogging websites have also started a concerted effort to derail the current trial by questioning its motivation.

In 1971, a nation was torn apart before our eyes. We watched paralysed with horror as atrocities were committed against innocent civilians including women and children. Forty-one years later we are dealing with the legacy, trying to exact punishment on the perpetrators of evil and help those who would rather forget, because remembering is too painful.

Before trying to justify the holding of the current trial by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), let’s consider the arguments put forward by those who oppose it.

The first one, which I think is the weakest, goes on like this: it has been a long time since the alleged crimes were committed. The trial has stirred bitter memories for many and has raised the age-old question of whether war criminals should be tried years after the atrocities have taken place and when younger generations have little memory or knowledge of what has occurred. It is time for the nation to forget and forgive and move forward. The nation has other priorities.

The problem with this argument is that the consequences of war crimes and crimes against humanity are felt for generations. Criminals have to be held accountable for their actions irrespective of the time when the crime took place. That’s one reason why there should be no statute of limitations on the prosecution of alleged war criminals. Such prosecutions are as much about a recognition of what was done as they are about delivering justice.

Second, critics have raised concerns regarding the statutes, rules of procedure, and practices of the ICT which was established under a 1973 Act. The rules and procedures have later been modified and improved in June 2011 and the Bangladesh government has promised to meet international standards in these trials. Justice can only be done for the victims, their families, and the perpetrators, if the Tribunal is fair and is seen as being fair by the people of Bangladesh and the international community. This is an opportunity for the government to demonstrate the virtue of a legal process that is free and fair.

Critics also argue that the alleged crimes do not qualify for prosecution by the ICT as they were committed before the court’s jurisdiction started. However, this should not prevent Bangladesh from fulfilling its obligations under international law. There is a principle, sometimes referred to loosely as universal jurisdiction, which suggests that for crimes such as these, any state on whose territory such an accused resides should either prosecute or extradite. The principle is based on a moral imperative: people who commit crimes that offend humanity must be brought to justice and we, like all nations, have a responsibility to honour this simple but profound statement of humanity.

So, why do we need this trial? The basis for taking an alleged war criminal to trial is completely different from the reasons for punishing a murderer who kills in peacetime. I can think of at least three reasons for the trial to proceed: humanising the accused; demonstrating moral superiority; and providing closure.

First, trials of war criminals should seek to eradicate any myth that exists about the character of the perpetrators. By systematically listing their crimes, and by exposing their glaring faults, the alleged war criminals are rendered as particularly vile individuals.

Second, it is important that we demonstrate our moral superiority. Irrespective of the level of contempt and anger that we feel for someone who instigated the murder of innocent people, we can take solace from the fact that democracy in our country remains unscathed – that we refuse to deviate from the moral high ground.

Last, but not the least, is the need to provide closure. By applying the principle of justice to the alleged war criminals, we could draw a line and say that it is over.

Four decades after independence, the people of Bangladesh can finally see justice done for war crimes and other atrocities committed during the 1971 War of Liberation. The International Crimes Tribunal is certainly necessary to provide accountability and to address longstanding cries of impunity for the alleged criminals.

Bangladesh should confront the unpleasant truth about the alleged war criminals and move to investigate and prosecute them with dispassion. They must be given a fair and proper trial, and every opportunity to defend their claimed innocence, but they must be tried.

The victims of their crimes deserve nothing less.

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A. R. Chowdhury is the Chairman of the Department of Economics at Marquette University. He also serves as the Chief Economist for the Capital Market Consultants and was recently appointed to the Academic Advisory Council of the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank.

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19 Responses to “ Justice delayed, justice denied ”

  1. Nirmal Biswas on December 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Excellent piece. It reflects the opinion of millions of people in this country. We want justice.

  2. Mobster K on December 4, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    It’s one thing to have a fair trial, and another to make scapegoats out of innocent people to quench the emotions of the general populace. Unfortunately, the government is doing just that. The actual perpetrators of 1971 war crimes are leading lavish lives in Pakistan having been pardoned by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

  3. Minu on November 23, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Please save us and the country from Jamaat and Shibir. I shudder at the thought of what will happen to us if they ever came to power.

  4. Khandker Arifuzzaman on November 23, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    We must ban Jamaat, Shibir and Hijbut-Tahir and all those religion-based political parties.

  5. Ln.Muhammad Belal Hossain on November 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Thank you very much Mr Chowdhury for your Article. We are the general people of Bangladesh and we want to see justice served.

    This is our humble request to the Govt and the Tribunal that, please ensure that justice has been done. But my question to the writer is — is it really a free and fair trial? Does it meet the global standard? What does Mr Chowdhury think?

  6. Pandu on November 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you so much for the article. I don’t know which group except for the Jamaat and BNP are opposing the war crimes trial. We need this trial to complete and the accused to be punished. We all need closure.

  7. Omar on November 20, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    I want to know how the Jamaat and Shibir cadres are getting away with the brutal attacks on the police force? This is outrageous!

  8. Iqbal Hasan Chowdhury on November 20, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    This write-up lacks the most important issue of the day — Jamaat’s attack on the police. What does the writer has to say about it? How does the writer fare the AL government as regards these attacks? Is Mr Chowdhury satisfied with the government’s way of handling these attacks?

  9. Umme Naziba on November 20, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Thank you Mr Chowdhury for a most timely piece. We all need this trial to be completed and the war crimminals to face the toughest punishment. This is required for all the Bangladeshis. We owe this to our freedom fighters and the family of the fallen heroes. We must punish the Razakaars.

  10. Tahir on November 20, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    True it’s been more than 40 years since we have been liberated but that should not pose as any barrier to bring the Razakaars to justice. But my question is, will they actually be punished in a transparent and fair trial? Because if the trial is not fair, it will always be mentioned as a vindictive measure taken by the AL government to weaken its opponent.

  11. Rimin on November 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Thank you for a timely piece. We are all waiting eagerly to punish the Razakaars.

  12. Emon on November 20, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    We want justice. Will this trial be able to ensure justice?

  13. Billal on November 20, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    The Jamaat is too powerful. They are proving it every day by their most syncronized attack on the police. The government needs to treat these attacks with utmost importance and ensure security for the police as well as the general people. It’s a scary time indeed.

  14. Chowdhury Ahad Alam on November 20, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Why did the writer not even mention the Shibir-Jamaat attack on the police these days? Isn’t it a most important issue? If the Jamaat cadres can create such anarchy when most of their big shots are on trial, think about how powerful and organized this party is. Do you really think they will keep quite while we punish their leaders?

  15. Hossain on November 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    The way Jamaat and Shibir are attacking our police in the most brutal and organized manner, does the writer really think that the trial will be completed peacefully and we will have closure?

  16. Nasir Uddin on November 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    While the war crimes trial is progressing, the Jamaat-e-Islami is resorting to vandalism and attacking police personnel in different corners of the country including Dhaka. What does it say of the Jamaat’s strength and the government’s capability to maintain law and order?

  17. Zareef Hossain on November 20, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    The way Jamaat, Shibir are attacking the law enforcers almost every day is really scary. Will the trial actually be completed? Will the razakaars actually be punished? I am scared of unrest and even terror attacks if the 71 traitors are given exemplary punishment.

  18. Amanta on November 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    We need to rid our country of those who opposed the birth of our nation during 1971. That we have allowed them freedom for this long will always remain a matter of shame for us and an insult to the war heroes.

    It’s about time we brought them to justice.

  19. Aminul on November 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    We do need closure and we must punish the razakaars but is the trial being held in a convincing and fair manner? Isn’t this one of the most important criterion? Who is ensuring the fairness of the trial?

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