The year 2013 will most likely be remembered in Bangladeshi history as the year of the war crimes trials. There is a decent chance that all verdicts will be handed down before the year is out. And if capital punishment is the outcome, at least one execution will almost certainly be carried out within the year.
Whatever else happens this is what we will remember this year for, such is the emotion and controversy that surrounds the issue of justice for the crimes committed against the nation and innocent individuals during the dark days of the Independence War.
There is strong bipartisan support in the country for war crimes trials to bring to justice those who are guilty of atrocities during the war. The fact that there had never been an accounting, and that the guilty and their victims continued to live side by side as if nothing had happened, was always a festering sore in the Bangladeshi national psyche.
There has always remained a sense that justice had not been done and that until it was that we had laid aside something very important to our self-identity and self-respect as a nation. There was always a sense that we could never really face the future with full confidence if we had not first come to terms with the demons of our past. This was a chapter that needed to be closed for us to move on.
As the trials wend their way to a close, support for the process still remains strong, despite the well documented weaknesses and insufficiencies of the trial procedure which has been dogged by controversy.
For a majority of Bangladeshis, the crimes the accused are being tried for are the unforgivable sins. They don’t want a show trial and they do want the crimes committed by the accused to be recounted and answered for in open court. But they are not much concerned with the niceties of judicial processes and conventions.
The general consensus is that, for all its imperfections, the justice that the war crimes accused are getting is no worse than that any Bangladeshi unlucky enough to be ensnared in the court system has to suffer, and that if we are overly punctilious about every judicial or prosecutorial hiccup then we could never convict anyone for anything.
When critics charge that the trials are insufficient, the response of most Bangladeshis is: compared to what? As far as they are concerned, the accused have received justice at least as good as anyone else here gets.
It might not be the focal point of anyone’s everyday concerns and it perhaps won’t be the point on which the elections depend, but the war crimes trials are still a likely net plus for the government. Certainly among swing voters who don’t think that there is much to call between the two main parties, it could prove a decisive factor.
This all presupposes that the process does not hit even rockier rapids in the future than it has already been discomfited by. There is still plenty of time for public disenchantment with the process to set in, and if the public mood on the trials turns sour, then it would be very bad news indeed for the government.
Causality runs the other way, too. If for other reasons the government’s popularity founders, this will in turn tend to undercut confidence in the war crimes trials. The best strategy the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) has on the trials is to continue to play possum. Railing against it is unlikely to win it any friends.
If the BNP could convincingly articulate a position in favour of war crimes trials with assurances that a BNP government would continue the prosecutions but remedy the errors of their predecessors, then they could make a case against the government for mishandling the trials rather than for having them in the first place.
This would be the killer pivot for them, but having already pivoted smartly on relations with India, there is no reason they couldn’t pull this one off as well.