Fighting an external enemy may be easier for a nation than dealing with internal ones. For the battle within, the frontlines are often blurred and issues unclear. The war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh, therefore, has been mired in controversies from the time it was set up by Sheikh Hasina Wajed in 2010. For Bangladesh’s prime minister, the setting up of the tribunal was much more than a political issue. It was, to her, a national debt that she and the country owed to the martyrs of the country’s war of liberation in 1971. But the task was always going to be a tough one for two reasons. Trials of those accused of war crimes and of crimes against humanity four decades ago could severely test the judicial process. Also, in the country’s bitterly divisive politics, it was almost impossible to build a political consensus on the historical necessity of the trials. The fact that Ms Wajed still took up the challenge showed her commitment to the cause. Successive Bangladesh governments’ failure to initiate the trials had left a historical wound festering in the new nation’s psyche. No matter what conflicts the trials revived or sharpened, Bangladesh needed to face an ugly past squarely in the face. Confronting the past, however tortuous, is often the best way to prepare for the future.
The violence that followed the tribunal’s sentence against Abdul Kader Molla, a top leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, for his war crimes in 1971 was not unexpected. The party had rejected the legal validity of the tribunal and organized violent protests across the country over the past few days in anticipation of the judgment. The party’s opposition to Bangladesh’s liberation war and its collaboration with the Pakistani regime in 1971 have never been a secret. But it has since carved out a space for itself in Bangladesh’s politics and was a partner in the previous government led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The BNP too has no love lost for the trials, which it has described as a “farce”. But it cannot afford to go the way of the Jamaat-e-Islami in protesting against the trials for fear of being equated with the ‘anti-liberation’ forces. Tuesday’s judgment against Mollah is a major triumph for longtime campaigners for the punishment of war criminals. However, it is up to Ms Wajed to prove that she is not using the tribunal — or history — to score political points with her rivals.