21 February 2019
Concepts such as "national security" and "subversion of state power" have come into play in Bangladesh war crimes trials. Credit:
Concepts such as "national security" and "subversion of state power" have come into play in Bangladesh war crimes trials. Credit:

Retribution vs justice: What do Bangladesh war trials tell us?

In October 2014, the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh held an important trial that has probably escaped the attention of most people outside the country.

A leader of the opposition party was charged with “war crime” in the nation’s independence war more than 40 years ago, and was sentenced to death.

What is so controversial is that the tribunal was founded in 2010, but it targeted the criminals in the Bangladesh Liberation War that took place in 1971. It seems the tribunal has no time limit regarding the crimes, thereby becoming a powerful political weapon.

Motiur Rahman Nizamr, who was given the death penalty, was the leader of the biggest Islamic political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. He was charged for crimes in the Bangladesh Liberation War, including being the leader of the militia group Al-Badr that has been accused of raping, robbing and killing of professionals, authors and doctors.

After the Partition of India in 1947, Pakistan was separated into East Pakistan and West Pakistan. East Pakistan, which is today’s Bangladesh, had India’s support in the Bangladesh Liberation War.

The war lasted for 9 months, and killed 300,000 people. After the war, most supporters of West Pakistan moved to Pakistan, while a few of them stayed in Bangladesh and became the opposition parties. To many people in Bangladesh, Nizamr is a traitor.

In 2008, the prime minister-to-be included in her campaign platform a special tribunal targeting those who committed war crimes. After being elected prime minister, she then set up the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh in 2010.

Despite the term “international”, the tribunal does not follow international law, but the national law of Bangladesh, which was passed in 1973 and amended in 2009 and 2012.

Before Nizamr, other Islamic leaders were sent to the tribunal for their “war crimes” in the Bangladesh Liberation War. For example, a former member of the parliament, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, was given life imprisonment in 2012.

This series of retribution acts has caused rebellion from the opposition, which had considered the tribunal as ruling party weapon to gain popularity.

In fact, it is normal for the winner of a war to have retribution. The point is that normally the trial would be carried out right after the war, like the trials of Japanese and German officials after the Second World War.

But with more than 40 years elapsing since the Bangladesh Liberation War, evidence would be difficult to come by, critics said. Also, there was strong suspicion of political factors playing a role, putting the credibility of the trial in question.

In addition, it is hard to define “treason” for the crimes in the Bangladesh Liberation War, as Bangladesh had not been founded yet. The more controversial point is that the people who are charged might not have understood that they were committing a “crime” or that they could be “charged”.

Now, you may ask: “How are the Bangladesh events relevant to us in Hong Kong?”

Well, they are indeed relevant, given that concepts like “national security” and “subversion of state power” have also been bandied about in Hong Kong recently.

The United Kingdom has a time limit of three years for treason charges, and indictment must be made by the grand jury within three years of the crime being committed. But Bangladesh, which claims itself as the successor of the United Kingdom’s rule of law, lacks such a time limit.

To many legal scholars of the United Kingdom, Bangladesh’s retribution is based on the “law”, but it is rather “rule by law” than “rule of law”.

Additionally, it is obvious that the government interferes in the judiciary. For example, Mohammed Nizamul Huq, the former judge of the International Crimes Tribunal, said the government once asked him to speed up and finish a trial before December 12 (the memorial day of the victory in the Bangladesh Liberation War).

Looking at all the events there, don’t they ring a bell for us here in Hong Kong?

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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