Lately, I’ve been invited to give my reaction to what’s going on there in Bangladesh in regard to Abdul Quader Mollah’s life sentence. Why wasn’t he given the death penalty? As I did the research, it seemed a sloppy job of prosecution on the part of the state. When you’re going to take someone’s life, you must assume a verdict of innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
The dispassionate facts that govern that stern-faced, blind woman of justice must never be swayed by the will of the people. The old adage that a person is judged guilty until proven innocent means that even the most unpopular monster should get a fair trial. This is the fundamental tenant of a civilized society. Any society lacking this cannot call itself democratic.
That might be the end of my article.
As an American, looking over some of the old documents and news reports, gleaning what I could from sources on the Internet, I found myself deeply troubled. Do I tell you, my dear readers why? I hesitate.
See, I don’t like hanging dirty laundry in public.
As a US citizen, I have a patriotic duty to foster mutual understanding and goodwill between my nation and the rest of the world. That’s why it pains me to rail against what I see as the complicity of the Nixon administration in what happened to Bangladesh, and in fact, what happened throughout the world in the name of containment. Unlike Quader Mollah, most of the many murderous proxies of American and Soviet meddling were never brought to justice.
And now I venture an opinion on this trial. Is my opinion, as an American, just a gentler form of interventionist, post-colonial meddling? Do I deserve an opinion here?
I think, in this case, I will use the precedent set by American diplomats in Dhaka during Quader Mollah’s reign of terror to accept the license to air my feelings. In 1971, in a public statement these diplomats, not people to usually hang their dirty laundry in public, had this to say:
Our (US) government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan dominated government… We, as professional public servants express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our nation’s position as a moral leader of the free world.
These are bold words, and they speak to the spirit of the old American conundrum of supporting freedom versus protecting what we see as our interests. President Nixon saw the Liberation War was as a strategic move on the part of India to neutralize the threat of West Pakistan. Nixon was eager to capitalize on our brand-new friendship with China to halt the spread of Soviet influence in the region. As I read President Nixon’s take on all that was going on in Bangladesh, I was shocked that few in Delhi, Beijing (then Peking), Moscow or Washington even seemed to care what the people of East Pakistan were suffering.
For the sake of justice, and to give some global perspective to those readers who think that justice wasn’t served, and a life sentence for Mollah may be lenient, please consider the following “dirty laundry”:
1947: Greece: Military dictatorship supported by the US comes to power in Greece. They stay in power until 1974. In 1975, members of the Junta are sentenced to death for High Treason, but the sentences are commuted to life imprisonment. The government then attempts to grant amnesty to the traitors, but the Greek people will not have it, and life imprisonment is the sentence imposed.
1953, Iran: Mohammed Mossadegh threatens to nationalize British Petroleum interests in Iran. The US supports the overthrow of Mossadegh and he is replaced by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The regime’s secret police, SAVAK, regularly tortures and murders any Iranian deemed “Enemies of the State.” Pahlavi rules as Shah of Iran until he is overthrown in 1979. He dies in exile, never standing trial for treason or crimes against humanity.
1954, Guatemala: After a democratic government is deposed by the CIA, Efraín Ríos Montt eventually comes to power in Guatemala. In a non-binding tribunal conducted by the Roman Catholic Church, Montt is convicted of massacres, rape, and torture, and for carrying out a policy of genocide of the indigenous people. He is purported to be responsible for the death of over 200,000 of his countrymen. He gained immunity, and is only now, in 2013, standing trial.
1959, Haiti: US helps install “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He and his son, “Baby Doc,” initiate a reign of terror in which over 100,000 people are killed. The Haitian government has recently put Baby Doc on trial for corruption only, despite the carnage of his regime. Duvalier may, in fact, dismiss all cases against him. The former dictator lives freely and opulently in Haiti.
Dictatorships in Brazil and the Dominican Republic, killed thousands. No one was ever brought to justice. Chilean Dictator Pinochet, Indonesia’s Suharto, Pol Pot, and Milosevic all escaped punishment of any sort.
A paranoid world gave power to many murderers in the name of the Cold War. Thousands suffered. Hardly any of these monsters were ever punished for their crimes. In light of these facts, the fact that Mollah was even brought to trial is remarkable considering the easy fate of some of the most of notorious war criminals in post Cold War history.
This is not by any means a call to placate those who are outraged by the verdict. Something exciting is happening inside Bangladesh, and the verdict is simply a catalyst, but the people must exercise extreme caution not to allow passion to trample the fundamental underpinnings of democracy.
* * *
Last week, Khaleda Zia lashed out against the Sheikh Hasina government in a blatant case of hanging her dirty laundry in public. Her missive in the Washington Post revealed top-level Bangladeshi politics for what they seem to have become: a petty two-family squabble. Her call to the international community to impose travel sanctions and other punitive measures on her own country seems to indicate that she would rather Bangladesh suffer economically than to see her opponent continue to hold power. In trying to rally political support, Khaleda Zia invites foreign intervention. This is a dangerous precedent, and invites precisely the sort of post-colonial meddling in which we in the West are all too eager to engage (the exact sort of thing I hope I’m not doing right now).
The AL and the BNP are asking the people of Bangladesh to choose between two ‘royal’ families, and the frustration of the Bangladeshi people is palpable even from the other side of the world…
…Even if neither of the bickering princesses are aware of it.
Most people not in power know what those in power often forget — that the laws of a nation should govern its people impartially, allowing equal access to power to the greatest number of people. The purpose of leadership should always be to serve the interests of law and order. The purpose of law and order should never be to keep the leadership in power.
The squabbling must end, but it cannot be the international community that ends it.
That job falls to the only people with the best interests of Bangladesh foremost in their hearts: The Bangladeshi people themselves.
The recent protests amount to something more than just an angry outburst over a single verdict. They represent a vote of no confidence for the two parties that have paralyzed the progress of your nation. The anger is justified, but I think that before hanging all suspected collaborators, or banning political parties in the basis of religion, activists should take a moment to understand the implication when it comes to the practice of democracy.
A person accused is not a person convicted, and crowd-sourced justice just creates a different sort of reign of terror. An angry collective mob can become just as brutal as a dictator or a thug.
A free and vibrant democracy relies upon fixed and predictable laws that are obeyed by all parties. It relies upon the confidence the people feel that these laws will protect their rights, no matter what political opinion they espouse. It depends upon a system of justice that is unswayed by popular opinion and unmoved by the demands of the masses.
Freedom is never served by indiscriminately hanging things in public…
… be they monsters, or dirty laundry.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.