21 January 2013 will always go down in Bangladeshi history as the day the first war crimes conviction was handed down, against Abul Kalam Azad aka Bachchu Razakar, found guilty on seven counts of murder, rape, abduction, torture, and genocide, and sentenced to death in absentia.

It has been a long time coming. For four decades the ghost of the atrocities and crimes committed during the war of independence have haunted the Bangladeshi psyche. It is only with the long-delayed war crimes prosecutions, at long last initiated by the Awami League (AL) when they returned to power in 2009, that we

will finally be able to begin to fully come to terms with our past and move forward as a nation.

The fact that people like Azad, 65 and a fugitive from justice for the past 10 months, were able to avoid prosecution and were able to remain powerful and influential figures tells its own story about the cancer that existed at the heart of the Bangladeshi society and polity.

I know of no other instance where such prominent enemy collaborators and opponents of a nation’s independence have been so seamlessly merged into the ruling structure of a newly-independent country, as happened in Bangladesh after 1975.

All 10 of those on trial for war crimes had become senior political leaders, in either the Jamaat or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), figures of massive influence and respect, two of them ministers in Khaleda Zia’s last alliance government.

The trials have been dogged by controversy and legitimate questions have been raised about the process. But after so many years, many of them with the accused in or close to power, and with the nation’s creaky and over-burdened legal apparatus, it was always going to be hard to deliver perfect justice.

But, for the most part, Bangladeshis feel that the trials have achieved the threshold level necessary for fairness, and that the justice they are dispensing is the closest to justice for 1971 we are ever likely to see.

The case of Azad is a good one to start with, as it was among the strongest. Reviewing the evidence, few would dissent from the assessment that his guilt had been proved beyond any reasonable doubt. The fact that he was found not guilty of one of the eight charges lends further credence to the deliberations of the tribunal.

As an absconder, Azad cannot appeal the verdict, and the sentence of death handed down on four counts of murder and genocide (the rape, abduction and torture charges were not capital ones) is certain to be upheld and confirmed.

But this merely sets the stage for the remainder of the verdicts, which will now follow one by one. If, as is expected, they return guilty verdicts on capital crimes, the appeals process will be exhausted before long and we will see the first executions well before the year’s end.

It remains to be seen what effect the verdicts and their execution will have on the already volatile political situation. No one expects the Jamaat to go quietly. With elections scheduled by 2014 and the Opposition already gearing up for a long drawn-out street campaign, the bonfire has already been lit.

Not that is any reason not to go ahead. It was fear of reprisal, as much as anything else, that stayed our hand these many years, and we should not let anxiety about the immediate repercussions influence the delivery of justice.

We all agree that this was a missed opportunity. A more punctilious judicial process that was not open to any question would have served the nation immeasurably better. Even better than a judicial process, a truth and reconciliation commission would have been even more useful. I for one would be willing to trade punishment for a full and honest accounting and apology.

But in the absence of these other alternatives, the current process is as good as it is going to get. It is certainly better than 40 years of inaction.

[The headline for this article is a quote from Justice Obaidul Haque’s judgment in the Azad case.]

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