By Bhavani Raveendran

In March 2010, almost forty years after the 1971 fight for independence from Pakistan, the Bangladeshi government created a war crimes tribunal to prosecute those who committed atrocities during the bloody nine-month conflict. The Bangladeshi government estimates three million people were killed during the war by Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators. Two hundred thousand women are estimated to have been raped; and the numbers of displaced persons reached the millions.

According to the Law Minister of Bangladesh, Shafique Ahmed, the government named three high court judges, led by Justice Nizamul Haque Nasim, to carry out trials for rape, murder, arson, torture, and genocide. A panel of retired Bangladeshi officials and lawyers will be prosecuting those suspected of forming auxiliary forces to aid Pakistan in 1971.

The Law Ministry stated that the tribunal will be conducted according to a 1973 act that sets guidelines for the prosecution of those accused of breaking international law and committing crimes against humanity. The government has prohibited fifty suspects from leaving the country, most of whom are members of Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic party in Bangladesh, which sided with Pakistan during the war. Allegedly, members of the party identified victims for the Pakistani military and may have assisted in killings. An estimated 1,600 people took part in the atrocities, but those who were members of the Pakistani army will not be subject to the tribunal’s jurisdiction. The government has provided no explanation for this decision, bringing criticism that the proceedings are victor’s justice and the tribunal is a vehicle to persecute political opposition. After the war, collaborators who were not direct perpetrators of heinous crimes were given amnesty and will not be prosecuted in the tribunal, while those with evidence or charges against them for direct participation were not.

The creation of the tribunal is promising, though the undertaking has been delayed since Bangladesh gained independence. Sheik Mujibur Rahman, founder and leader of Bangladesh, began trials of war criminals in 1973, but was assassinated before they could be completed. Since then, political turmoil has hindered the progress of the tribunal despite outcries from victims’ families and veterans of the war. The current Prime Minister, Sheik Hasina, campaigned to prosecute war criminals, and Parliament passed a resolution for swift trials in 2009, finally allowing for the creation of the tribunal.

The renewed promise became action two days after Bangladesh’s ratification of the Rome Statute, which defines the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Bangladesh is the 111th nation in the world, but the first in South Asia, to become a State Party to the ICC. Bangladesh may now need to reexamine the implementation of its tribunal to ensure consistency with the standards set forth in the Rome Statute, which will enter into force June2010. In one notable example, the 1973 act creating the Bangladesh Tribunal allows for the death penalty, a punishment that is not permitted under the Rome Statute. Though the lapse in time since the war may make it more difficult to produce evidence and fair trials, the United Nations has expressed its hope that the trials operate according to international standards for which it is considering sending observers.