Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, but at a terrible price. Pakistan didn’t just oppose Bangladeshi liberation on the battlefield. It unleashed one of the most shameful genocides of the 20th century on ethnic Bengali citizens with the help of local extremist groups. As many as three million Bengalis were killed in just nine months and more than two hundred thousand women were raped and tortured.
As is the case with war crimes elsewhere, many decades later those responsible for the massacre are finally being brought to justice. In 2009, a domestic War Crimes Tribunal (ICT-BD) was established in Bangladesh to investigate and prosecute those accused of crimes against humanity.
Bangladesh’s war crimes victims deserve justice and so do their families. The passing of time cannot wipe away the horrors of that period even though many of those responsible for mass murder have avoided justice, some by taking refuge in foreign countries. Others have even worked their way into the country’s political establishment.
The purpose of the tribunal is to set right this great wrong. Over the past year, it and a second tribunal have heard evidence against two accused ringleaders of the genocide — Motiur Rahman Nizami and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. The evidence against both is extensive, compelling and ghastly.
If they are found guilty, they likely will hang, as the death penalty is still part of Bangladeshi law. Verdicts may come at any time.
Nizami is not just an accused killer. He is also the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, an extremist group responsible for a wave of murder and violence across Bangladesh during the past year. Its attacks have resulted in 500 deaths. Jamaat has deep roots in the region going back to its collaboration with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh’s war for independence. Back then, Jamaat launched the fearsome paramilitary group called Al-Badr, which were death squads similar to Adolph Hitler’s SS during World War II.
Jamaat, in essence, it is a domestic terror organization with a political arm. It has worked since Bangladesh’s independence to destroy the country’s pluralistic constitutional democracy and to replace it with a primitive version of Sharia law.
Nizami faces 16 counts of crimes against humanity including genocide, murder, torture, rape and property destruction, all of which are based on eyewitness accounts. As Al-Badr’s chief leader during the genocide, Nizami is accused of either personally carrying out or ordering the deaths of nearly 600 ethnic Bengalis as well as the rape and the torture of many women.
Some of the worst atrocities came at the infamous Mohammadpur Physical Training Institute in Dhaka, which was a human abattoir reminiscent of Nazi death camps.
An entire of generation of Bangladesh’s best minds were wiped out at the Institute, tribunal prosecutors charge, because Nizami and other collaborators devised a systematic plan to torture and execute professors, engineers, artists and scientists. The plan was that if Pakistan could not prevent Bangladesh’s independence, it would seek to cripple the young state in its infancy by destroying its top intellectuals.
One tribunal witness, a former Bangladeshi freedom fighter who testified that he had been beaten and pistol-whipped by Nizami, visited the Institute just after the war ended. There he found human skulls and severed limbs lying around like rubbish. Walking to nearby Rayer Bazar, which Nizami’s Al-Badr used as an execution site, the scene turned from gruesome to macabre.
“On our way we also found about 200 pairs of eyeballs,” he testified. “Crows were picking at them.”
Sayeedi is a senior leader of Jamaat. Like Nizami, he conspired and fought against Bangladeshi independence in 1971. Like Nizami, he took a leadership role in the genocide and terror, prosecutors charge. He is alleged to have forced Hindus to convert to Islam, but he didn’t stop there.
Sayeedi is charged with several acts of murder and rape, especially targeting Hindu communities. In one village, prosecutors say, Sayeedi and his forces burned houses and kidnapped women, including three sisters he handed over “to the local army camp where they were confined and raped for three days,” according to tribunal testimony.
One prosecution eyewitness told a chilling tale of collaboration between Sayeedi and the Pakistani invaders. Sayeedi’s forces captured a Bangladeshi named Ibrahim, tied him up and burned down his house. Then they marched him across a small bridge and untied him where Sayeedi gave the signal for a Pakistani soldier to shoot him dead.
The Bangladesh genocide of 1971 is one of the worst crimes of the 20th century. The horror is on par with any crime against humanity perpetrated in Germany, the Soviet Union, Cambodia or China. The evidence against Nizami and Sayeedi is being weighed now. Whatever the verdict, justice will be done, finally, after four decades of shameful inaction.
Mohammad A. Arafat is a faculty member at Independent University, Bangladesh, and the executive director of the Shuchinta Foundation, an organization involved in social activities including creating awareness about the war crime trial.