I was reminded of Franz Kafka's famous novel The Trial when I heard that the charge of contempt of court has been brought against the Bangladesh based journalist David Bergman for three posts on his blog http://bangladeshwarcrimes.blogspot.com, which reports on the proceedings of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal's (ICT) for war crimes committed during the Liberation War of 1971. Although recognised by many in Bangladesh (myself and Bergman included) as a long overdue, necessary step towards coming to terms with the traumatic birth of Bangladesh, and bringing justice to the victims, the trials have nonetheless been mired in controversy.
Though most of the posts on David Bergman's blog involve daily notes and transcripts of tribunal proceedings, some of the posts have involved commentary and have been critical of the trial process which he sees as falling short of the standards that both national and international courts dealing with international crimes generally follow.
For example, in one of the blog posts for which contempt charges have been brought against him, he points out that the standards for in-absentia trials have fallen short of the standards of the European Court on Human Rights, as well as the UN supported Special Trial for Lebanon, in the case of Abdul Kalam Azad ("Bachchu Razakar"). The post also deals with the choice of the defence lawyer appointed by the state, who seemed to have definite political leaning towards the ruling party and who, blaming "Bachchu Razakar"'s family's lack of support, made little independent initiative to investigate the charges brought against his (absent) client.
In general, David Bergman's blog posts come across as unemotional with precise and detailed analyses of the facts, which show that he knows what he is writing about.
Another one of the blog posts in question deals with the issue of the accuracy of the official figure of 3 million people killed in the war of 1971. In Bangladesh this is a highly emotive number and by calling it into question David Bergman has, according to the contempt application to the ICT, “caused grave hurt to the emotion of the nation and also belittled the authority of a court of law.”
I find it strange that precisely when historians and writers around the world are calmly discussing this number for the sake of historical understanding of the conflict, some believe that Bergman, by the mere fact that he has pointed out that there is such an international debate, could be in contempt of the court. How does discussing a debate “hurt the emotion of the nation”?
I grew up in Bangladesh under various military dictatorships during which time there was severe censorship in the media and public discourse on history. For example, I remember that the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was edited out of our school textbooks. Now that we are in parliamentary democracy, shouldn't we be committed to talking and discussing the truth regardless of how much “hurt” it causes?
Recently in Bangladesh we have seen a continual silencing of dissenting voices. This gradual elimination of contrary opinions from the public sphere has created an atmosphere of intimidation such that we have started censoring ourselves. It does not bode well when an independent and politically non-partisan voice like Bergman is being silenced.
David Bergman's first significant visit to Bangladesh was in 1994 to investigate Chowdhury Mueen Uddin who at that point was a British citizen living in the U.K. for many years, and a leader of the Muslim community in London. What David Bergman's film “The War Crime Files”, which he made in collaboration with Gita Sahgal, and several Bangladeshi journalists, unearthed was the extensive evidence for the active role that Chowdhury Mueen Uddin allegedly played in the killings of the pro-independence Bengali intellectuals in the final days of the Liberation War as well as his complicity in routine torture and mass killings in Feni which was his hometown.
“The War Crime Files” should be recognised as an important milestone in the history of Bangladesh's search for truth and justice for atrocities of 1971 which continues and builds upon an important tradition by brave individuals such as Jahanara Imam.
Many have argued that by critiquing the ICT in his blog David Bergman has “helped the cause” of Jamaat-e-Islam and its incarcerated leaders who are awaiting trials for crimes against humanity by the ICT. Even if criticism of the fair standards of a trial benefits defendants, that cannot be a reason against criticism. Instead of seeing Bergman's criticism as helping to improve the trials, we go for extreme simplification and conspiracy theories. Bergman's insistence on asking for fair trial standards is because he is deeply invested in the process of bringing the war criminals to justice, in the truest sense of the word.
David Bergman's contribution to Bangladesh becomes clear when we remember his documentary “The War Crimes Files.” Like his blog, it is a detached, emotionally restrained movie based on solid investigative journalism (made at a time when there were no such movies, Bangladeshi or otherwise). Its purpose was something more concrete: to uncover new facts that would lead to the trials of three British nationals who possibly committed war crimes in the then East Pakistan in 1971.
Milan Kundera, in his book “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” explores the ways in which human beings continually forget the past -- but in doing so he also discovers something deep about memory. Repeating a thin litany of “facts” like mantra is not remembering or honouring the past -- it is its exact opposite, it is forgetting the past. From this point of view David Bergman is an extremely important person for Bangladesh because he discovered some crucial and forgotten facts about Bangladesh in his film “The War Crime Files”. Thus, he is deeply tied to our memory of ourselves.
I believe that our disquiet about David Bergman and the silence of many of the intellectuals and the self-declared human rights activists in our country regarding his trial by the ICT is related to the tendency to reedit history to their own advantage. As long as David Bergman's work served the grand narrative that the Bengali nation had erected for itself we were happy to embrace him and celebrate him. But now that David Bergman is deconstructing (in a logical and detached manner) the ICT proceedings and pointing out procedural problems with the trial that he himself helped give rise to with his documentary, he is no longer a person who serves our grand narrative. And therefore he needs to be silenced and erased from memory.
I believe that David Bergman's work on the ICT represents an important part of our memory project: he reminds us constantly of the contradictory aspects of our national identity where we gloss over unpleasant and inconvenient facts that don't fit the grand national narrative. His work is a reminder that we can only honour the memory of the dead by holding the tribunal to proper standards, and not by hasty demands for revenge.
Truth is an inconvenient thing but at the end of the day it is all we've got.
Dr. Tibra Ali is a scientist and writer.