Today in Bangladesh the Awami League government is conducting a series of show trials against its political foes. The men, all members of opposition political parties, are accused of war crimes committed during the War of Independence in 1971. These trials, conducted by a special court called the International Crimes Tribunal [ICT], are in some ways similar to those in the USSR during its Stalinist phase.
The accused in the Moscow trials were not innocent men. They were loyal communists who had helped Lenin to impose his tyranny on the people of Russia and its Empire. They were members of a government that, during the Russian Civil War, committed its full share of crimes and atrocities. Yet no one, least of all the accused, believed that they were on trial because of what they had done to impose the Gulag regime on Russia. They were on trial because Stalin was a paranoid dictator who governed through terror.
The Islamists of the Jamaat Party may or may not be any more innocent than the revolutionaries Stalin executed, but this does not mean they are guilty of the crimes of which the ICT has accused them. It also does not mean that they are innocent. The trials have been so lacking in fairness, and so corrupt, that no one should accept them as legitimate.
The accused have not been allowed full and unrestricted access to defense counsel. Witnesses have been intimidated and not allowed to present their full testimony. One witness was kidnapped, apparently by security forces, from outside the courthouse in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.
According to defense sources, the prosecution presented as if it were hard evidence multiple hearsay testimonies as well as newspaper reports and written statements of dubious origin. To say that the trial has not conformed to international standards is beyond an understatement.
The ICT, however, is not truly a totalitarian institution -- at least not yet. But it and the government it serves are headed in that direction. The Tribunal judges are all members in good standing of the Awami League; their loyalty to that party has been proven by the communications intercepted between one of the judges and an Awami legal advisor based in Belgium. In a small sign that all is not yet lost, the judge resigned. But instead of a mistrial being declared, he was replaced with another government loyalist, and the trial continued as if nothing had happened.
The verdicts have produced riots and demonstrations throughout Bangladesh. Contrary to some claims, these demonstrations began as an effort by Awami supporters to change the sentence of life imprisonment, handed down to one defendant, to the death penalty. Many pro-Awami protesters apparently fear that if their party loses the next election, the defendants who are sentenced to life in jail might be pardoned by the new government. This apprehension reveals just how political these trials really are. If the trials were legitimate, the overwhelming majority of the public would insist that the men who had been found guilty stay in jail, no matter who the Prime Minister was.
Bangladesh has a long history of political street violence: in recent days, more than 80 people have been killed, and opposition leaders are being arrested during street protests.
The Awami league originated as a Marxist-Leninist style of party; its conversion to the principles of democracy was never solid, and mostly in evidence when it was in opposition. Whatever Islamic principles the Jamaat stands for, the ICT has utterly failed to support any ideals of democracy or rule of law.
To punish the crimes of 1971 using a dubious and highly politicized legal process, apparently intended to result in the execution of some of the government's political foes, does nothing for the cause of justice or for the future of Bangladesh.