Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister, controversially denounced Bangladesh’s execution of 65-year-old Abdul Quader Molla, a leader of that country’s Jamaat-e-Islami party. From someone whose government wants to see 70-year-old Pervez Musharraf, this country’s former president and Army chief, hanged, this lecture on reconciliation was rich.
Given that Molla was convicted for crimes allegedly committed during the 1971 civil war that saw East Pakistan become Bangladesh, Khan, and the National Assembly, should have kept their own counsel. Instead, they reified suspicions within Bangladesh that Pakistan is continuing to meddle in the affairs of its former half. Typically, not only did Pakistan’s self-flagellating and self-deemed liberals excoriate Khan and the alleged past and present excesses of the Pakistan Army, they actually rejoiced at Molla’s hanging. This Bangladesh model, they held, should be emulated by Pakistan. This is madness.
Call Khan what you will, but his message was sensible and sound. Likely for the first and only time, Khan is on the same page—at least as far as the Molla matter goes—as the U.N., United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, Australia, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists.
While Pakistan is no shining beacon of democratic virtues, there’s no denying that Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a brutal autocracy where the detention of political rivals, journalists, and human-rights campaigners is the norm. The Jan. 5 elections, boycotted by 21 political parties and by international election observers, saw Hasina win a second consecutive term. But the results stand delegitimized by the country’s ongoing violence.
Revenge has become a national priority in Bangladesh, blinding even its best and brightest. Take author Tahmima Anam, who comes from a political-literary family and who was born four years after the bloody birth of Bangladesh. Her Dec. 26 op-ed for The New York Times, “Pakistan’s State of Denial,” illustrates the incurable ailments that afflict Bangladesh.
Anam concedes that the controversial war-crimes tribunal set up by Hasina to settle 1971 scores has been “dogged by criticism” and been “accused of skirting international procedural standards and of being politically motivated.” But she is too overjoyed about the Molla hanging to give these non-Pakistani objections a second thought. “Whatever one thinks of these trials or the death penalty generally, the sentence against Mr. Molla was handed down by an independent court in a sovereign country on the basis of extensive eyewitness testimony,” she writes. Never mind that opposition to the death penalty has not been the primary objection raised by human-rights groups and foreign governments in this matter. And never mind that the tribunal, say rights groups and Bangladesh’s own press, was anything but independent. Anam dismisses the storm of global criticism by pleading sovereignty. How very Pakistani of her.
“Never mind Prime Minister Hasina’s flaws,” writes Anam, whose grandfather was a member of Hasina’s Awami League, without wasting a word on these flaws. “At least she has had the political courage to take a stand against whitewashing the past, while the opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, has reinforced her ties with Jamaat by remaining silent on the matter.” Zia, another former prime minister, is under house arrest and has been declared a “traitor” by Hasina. (Zia was tipped to narrowly win the election had she participated.) No prize for guessing which party Anam voted for last Sunday.
But here’s where Anam truly gives herself away: “And Mr. Molla’s execution on Dec. 12 had widespread public support.” This is the most glib, feeble, and criminal defense of the indefensible. Widespread public support, Anam attempts to argue, trumps the imperatives of a fair trial and due process. Not only does she come out in support of mob-lynching she also belies her own earlier claim, in the same op-ed no less, that the Molla execution was the work of an “independent court.” If “widespread public support” for Molla’s head was the abiding principle here, Anam can only be accusing the court of being independent of justice.
Bangladesh’s search for closure from the civil war is a noble objective. But the country has irreversibly gone off the path of justice, and sanity. That’s the non-Pakistani consensus from the U.N., Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Commission of Jurists—who have all condemned the war-crimes trials in Bangladesh as glaringly absent of fairness and due process. The U.N. had appealed to Dhaka not to execute Molla. It has called his killing an “arbitrary execution.” Molla’s conviction was rendered “in a trial that did not meet international standards for imposition of the death penalty,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on Dec. 10. A day earlier, two independent U.N. special rapporteurs said Molla “was not granted a fair trial.”
Human Rights Watch is dismayed by Dhaka-style justice. It notes with alarm how Bangladesh amended its laws to permit prosecutors to appeal a life-imprisonment conviction and demand capital punishment instead. “Hanging Molla on the basis of retroactive legislation and then denying him the right to appeal against this sentence is a grave violation of his fundamental rights” and international fair-trial standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, said Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director. Its John Sifton told U.S. legislators in November that the war-crimes tribunal “has been marred by serious deficiencies which have undermined the integrity of its process and the soundness of the tribunal’s judgments … The tribunal too will suffer as its decisions are increasingly seen as politicized, and cynicism dulls good-faith efforts to fix its deficiencies.”
While Pakistan is no shining beacon of democratic virtues, there’s no denying that Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a brutal autocracy.
Amnesty International, too, supported the establishment of the Bangladesh tribunal to end the “mass-scale crimes” that were “committed by members of Pakistani and Indian armed forces, as well as by members of all armed groups.” But its expectations have also been chastened by the execution of Molla, the first person to be executed for 1971 war crimes. “This is the first known case of a prisoner sentenced to death directly by the highest court in Bangladesh, and the first known death sentence in Bangladesh with no right of appeal,” says Amnesty International. “The imposition of the death sentence without the possibility of appeal is incompatible with Bangladesh’s obligations under international human-rights law.”
“Even perpetrators of atrocities have rights,” said Sam Zarifi of the International Commission of Jurists in February last year. “They should be brought to justice, not subjected to vengeance.” He added: “The enormous demonstrations and the unfortunate violence that have accompanied each decision of the [tribunal] demonstrate the passions still enflamed by the crimes of 1971. But it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that the rule of law and the path to justice are not subject to immediate political pressure … the government’s obligation to bring those responsible for the atrocities committed in 1971 to justice must not outweigh the presumption of innocence and the duty to ensure the security of all persons.”
The International Commission of Jurists says the war-crimes trials suffer from “serious procedure flaws at all stages.” It says “pre-trial release [to the accused] has been routinely and arbitrarily denied; witnesses have been abducted and intimidated; there have been credible allegations of collusion between the government, prosecutors and judges.”
Zarifi says: “Judgments such as these highlight the serious problems with the war-crimes tribunal that undermine its legitimacy. The wounds of war can only be healed through a fair and transparent trial process that meets international standards of fair trial and due process of law … the death penalty perpetuates the cycle of violence and is a perversion of justice, and all the more so when it is imposed in violation of due process.” Ben Schonveld, the Commission’s South Asia director, notes: “The timing of the Supreme Court’s decision [to hang Molla] and the tribunal’s subsequent death warrant raise serious questions about the political motivations behind the [tribunal] process as well as the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”
This puts paid to claims about the independence of Bangladesh’s courts and the integrity of its prime minister. Anam the author is enflamed and consumed by the warping secondhand passions surrounding the tragic and heinous atrocities of 1971. Perhaps Pakistan should express remorse for the number the violence 43 years ago did on generations of Bangladeshis, like her, who don’t even pretend to think straight.
There are two other points from the denialist Anam that require a response. She decries Pakistan’s schoolbooks and its official narrative of 1971 and then demonstrates her own ill education by claiming that the Pakistan Army “surrendered to independent Bangladesh” at Dhaka. The official Indian narrative begs to differ. (She means, of course, that the Eastern Command surrendered to the idea of independent Bangladesh. Figuratively, not literally.)
Anam also claims that Pakistan has come close to but never actually apologized for civil-war crimes. This is pedantic overreach. On July 30, 2002, Musharraf—then Pakistan’s president and, more symbolically, Army chief—visited the Savar war memorial near Dhaka and left the following note: “Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events in 1971. The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regretted. Let us bury the past in the spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed.” He repeated the same sentiment at a banquet that evening alongside Bangladesh’s then-prime minister Zia. Anam cites some of Musharraf’s words in her op-ed, but does not deem them sufficient. “Pakistan, it is high time you apologize,” she demands.
But Anam is right on one score.
Before interior minister Khan’s pained denunciation of Molla’s mob-dictated execution, the Foreign Office in Islamabad also issued a gratuitous statement. “As a friendly country … we are closely following the political developments as they unfold inside Bangladesh. While it is not Pakistan’s policy to interfere in the affairs of any country, we have noted the concerns raised by the international community and human-rights organizations on the way recent trials have been conducted,” it said. “We wish the brotherly people of Bangladesh well and hope that spirit of reconciliation and an atmosphere, free of violence, will prevail.”
Racism toward the Bengali majority in East Pakistan was institutionalized in West Pakistan. The civil war should not have happened. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should have been prime minister of united Pakistan. The “democrat” Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and strongman Gen. Yahya Khan should have accepted the results of Pakistan’s 1970 elections. Many in Pakistan maintain that it’s dishonest to hail Bhutto as a hero for “rescuing” tens of thousands of Pakistani POWs when his unbridled lust for power put them there in the first place; that Pakistan, East and West wings both, was brutally and heinously wronged in 1971; and that while Bhutto and General Khan weren’t the only ones who offended against united Pakistan, they were among the worst. Considering Pakistan’s own chronic inability to conduct a single free or fair trial, deliberating today on Bangladesh’s flaws only demonstrates a wretchedly galling lack of self-awareness.
It would not be wrong to say that a majority of Pakistanis disagreed with Bangladesh’s decision to hang Molla. Equally, it is also evident that a majority of Pakistanis agree that Islamabad is hardly in any position to stand in judgment over Dhaka.
From our Jan. 18, 2014, issue.