Protect the witnesses
THEY were the ordinary people who responded to the call of their conscience. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government launched the war crimes trial these people came out of shadows and dared to testify against the defendants accused of mass killings, rapes and arson -- crimes against humanity -- committed during Bangladesh's Liberation War against Pakistan in 1971. Most of those who stood trial are from Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the party which had collaborated with the brutal Pakistani forces in one of the world's worst genocide that saw the killing of 3 million people and rape of 200,000 women.
The two tribunals -- set up under the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act -- have already sentenced several defendants to death. The verdicts were hailed as fair and justice was done to the families of the innocent people killed in the genocide.
Jamaat and its notorious student wing, Shibir, has started hitting back. The revengeful forces have targeted the witnesses, prosecutors, investigators, tribunal judges and all others involved in the war crimes trial.
Two men who testified against Delwar Hossain Sayedee and Abdul Quader Mollah who, police say, have been killed in their homes by Jamaat-Shibir miscreants.
Consider the killing of Mostafa Hawlader, a 55-year-old man from Hoglabunia village in Pirojpur district, the home district of Sayedee. Hawlader's testimony had played a key role in the ICT's decision to hand down death sentence to Sayedee. Sayedee's men threatened to take revenge. In spite of the threat, Mostafa lived unprotected in his village along with his family. The authorities did little to protect him. Mostafa died in Dhaka Medical College Hospital from the wounds inflicted by the lone attacker who sneaked into his house through a hole dug in darkness.
Muzaffar Ahmed Khan, who filed the war crimes allegations against Quader Mollah, was the first person to testify against the Jamaat leader, who got death sentence after the Appellate Division upgraded the original ICT verdict of life term following a petition from the prosecutors.
Muzaffar, a freedom fighter based in Keraniganj, the area where Quader Mollah committed most of the crimes, had survived a bomb attack in April this year. An injured Muzaffar had sought police protection, but did not get it. In a country where police are too busy providing protection to VIPs only, it's no surprise that they (police) would ignore the plea from ordinary men like Muzaffar and Mostafa.
Similarly, about 200 other people braved attacks and threats to testify against the accused war criminals so the nation could rid itself of collective guilt for not being able to do justice to those who were killed by the accused. Miscreants, allegedly belonging to Jamaat and Shibir, did not stop at just issuing threats to the witnesses. Many of the witnesses have come under bomb attacks. The death of Mostafa is good enough an example that Jamaat-Shibir men mean business. There is no reason to underestimate Jamaat's evil spirit of vengeance. A party which had played a key role in the Bangladesh genocide and is still far from offering an apology for that crime can go to any length.
Yet, the government has ignored the call for making a law that would make protection of the witnesses obligatory for the security forces. Or else, how is the government going to answer the question that rang out of the heart of Hasina Begum in an interview with The Daily Star: “They killed my husband. Now they will kill me and my children. Who will protect us?”
Jamaat and Shibir launched their backlash from the start of the war crimes trial three years ago. Their first target were the police. Emerging from alleys in small groups Jamaat-Shibir men, most of them youths, took police and security forces by surprise attacking them with homemade bombs and in many cases beating them to death. They have dared to snatch the arms from some of the policemen in an attempt to demoralise the security forces.
Despite the attacks, the police are fighting back. The prosecution witnesses in the war crimes trial are not bowing to the intimidation.
The government should learn a lesson from this spirit demonstrated by the ordinary people and the lower level policemen.
The writer is former Bureau Chief, AP.