Happy Birthday, Bangladesh

December 17, 2009

George Harrison, former Beatles, singing “Bangla Desh” (Ringo Starr, another Beatles member is at the drums) at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh in New York City.

Well, it’s technically, Liberation Day but close enough.  On this day, December 16, 1971, the Pakistani Army surrendered to the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army, ending one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II.  Some estimates put the death toll from the violence at upwards of 3 million people, mostly civilians.  Ten million Bangladeshis fled to neighboring India, where cholera and other diseases took their toll on the innocent civilians trapped by the fighting or forced from their homes by an occupying army. To date, almost no one has faced charges from these murders, rapes and other war crimes.

Though freed, it was completely devastated not just by the 1971 war, but also by the Bhola cyclone which killed 500,000 people in late 1970.  It was followed by a decade of at least 30 military coup attempts (at least 6 of them were successful) and other political instability.  Human rights violations abound.  Women especially face the brunt of a justice system that is unable and unwilling to protect them.  Yet, through it all, the country has made some amazing advances.

But, the country is still paying a price for the wounds of 1971 as evidenced by the ongoing and controversial trial of the killers of the Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman. In a 1975 coup, some military officers stormed the residence of the President and killed not only Mujibar Rahman, but his entire family, except his daughter who happened to be abroad at the time.  It is clear that the current Prime Minister, that daughter who escaped that early death, still feels the pain of her parent’s death.  Rightly so, but the mode of punishment is unacceptable– the government intends to kill them by firing squad in January.

Even if we forget (which we should not do) the events of the past, there is an equally contentious trial of alleged “ring leaders” of the February 25, 2009 rebellion of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in central Dhaka.  The fighting left dozens dead, including at least 57 army officers executed by BDR personnel claiming to be upset with the way in which they are treated by the military.  Unfortunately, the alleged perpetrators have been mistreated themselves and some have died in mysterious circumstances.  Others have been held incommunicado for months.  Some have been tortured, subjecting suspects to beatings and the use of pliers to crush testicles, inserting needles under suspect’s nails and administering electric shocks.

While it is certainly important to bring the perpetrators of crime and human rights violations to justice, it is most certainly not acceptable to use other human rights violations such as the death penalty or to convict perpetrators in unfair trials.

So, happy birthday Bangladesh, but it’s time to take human rights seriously by ensuring fair trials and by not using torture, extra-judicial executions, torture and the death penalty for those accused of human rights violations.