Toying with the war crimes trial
NINE months running, the government has been in power for as long as the war crimes were committed in 1971. Long on words and short on actions, the trial may have reached its equinox, because the chance of holding it appears equally likely as the chance of being postponed again. At a time like this, it's appropriate to invoke my most favourite American poet. "In three words I can sum up everything I have learned in life," said Robert Frost. "It goes on," was his lesson.
If the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee is being antsy and pushing for a deadline, it's because they might have also learned a similar lesson. They might not say it, and you don't want to ask them. But once burned, twice warned, they have learned since the Committee was formed in 1992 that foot-dragging could be a telltale sign that the cards are being reshuffled. The trial is perhaps going to go on, as Frost said.
Not to forget, we have an assurance from the government. The Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs minister has said that the trial would be held and nobody guilty of war crimes was going to be spared. We are glad he also went the extra mile to put our minds to rest. There is no pressure from abroad against the trial, he confirmed.
That leaves it entirely to us. What remains to be done is the logistic part. Special courts need to be set up and then prosecutors and judges have to be appointed. Obviously, jury box, witness stand, judge's bench, and, most importantly, the gavel, have to be ready before the trial. Crimes are committed on the spur of the moment. But trials must go the whole nine yards.
All the more reason why there should be a roadmap. People should know in advance there could be delays and deliberations. Personally, I am not a big believer in roadmaps. Judging by the Middle East peace process, roadmaps lead to dead ends.
In our case, a roadmap is essential for an altogether different reason. It's not so much to find the way as to tell us if the journey has begun. It could convince us that the government is ready, that it means business. Right now the whole thing is fluid. The trial was expected to start last June. The new target is December. If the start shifts again, the end can drift to nowhere.
This is where we stumbled last Sunday when the minister announced that there was no roadmap. If there is going to be a trial, and if the government is working on logistics so that the trial can happen, why can't it give us a roadmap? Shouldn't that make us shaky if this government is serious about the trial? Shouldn't that make us doubtful if this government has actually thought it through?
Shoppers need shopping lists. Weddings require planning. How can a trial of such national importance happen without a planner? It doesn't have to be cast in stone. It can be modified and updated depending on progress of work. People can be briefed from time to time on the changes. It doesn't have to be an earthshaking affair.
But ruling out the possibility of having the roadmap throws a monkey wrench into popular imagination. The Nirmul Committee must be worried exactly for that reason. They must be afraid lest the progress of trial is once again dragged through the procedural molasses of political pragmatism. They must be afraid lest it's shoved again to the backburner under the coercive direction of an invisible hand.
We have fiddled away thirty-eight years toying with the idea of a trial. For thirty-eight years we have fretted over the slaughter of three million people and rape of two hundred thousand women. For as many years, we have given lip service to their memories, and did scantly to bring the criminals to justice.
Why? Has it been due to lack of evidence? Is it because we don't know who they are? Are these people absconding or hard to find? No. We have failed because of our irreverent handling and lack of political will. Those who were killed and raped, we have used them as hyena's share of the lion's kill.
Pardon me if I have to invoke my poet one last time. While addressing students at Harvard University, he suddenly looked up at the heavens. "Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I'll forgive Thy great big joke on me," he said in jest.
The burden of guilt has shifted meanwhile. It's no longer the question whether we are going to spare the monsters of 1971. The question is if their victims will forgive the great big joke we pulled on them for 51 times longer than the period of the crime.