ICT Verdicts Continue to Reveal Unhealed Trauma

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By  Julie Bowen

The recent verdicts of the Internationa war Crime Tribunal  (ICT) against Ghulam Azam and Ali Ahsan Mojaheed, and the divided responses to these verdicts, have revealed yet again the old wounds that still divide this country 42 years after the violence that accompanied the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation. 

Ali Ahsan Mojaheed, was convicted on charges of political kidnapping and murder associated with the 1971 war, and sentenced to death, in the same week as the 91-year-old Ghulam Azam was given a jail sentence of 90 years for his role in inciting violence. The court chose to sentence Azam to jail rather than the death penalty because of his age and infirmity. The responses to this verdict epitomized the divisions that still haunt Bangladesh so long after the country was created with the vision of a secular state in which religious differences could be overcome. Supporters of Azam called the judgment perverse and unjust, at the same time as those on the other side of the debate were calling for a stronger sentence. The judgments of the ICT continue to inspire the same protest and unrest that erupted so violently in response to the sentencing of Delawar Hossain Sayede in March. 

Azam's case highlights the difficulties that have left those suspected of war crimes to live free for so many years. Calls for justice had begun soon after the violence ended, leading Azam to flee the country and live in Pakistan for much of the 1970s. He returned to Bangladesh in 1978, as Islamist politics began to gain power in what had been a largely secular state. Azam's return renewed demands for some form of tribunal, but fear of destabilizing the relationships between political parties, and of what might occur should the old wounds be reopened, prevented successive governments from making the attempt. Finally, in 2010, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was established to consider alleged human rights abuses committed in 1971. In some ways, the fears of those governments who did not want to risk a tribunal were realized in the violence that has accompanied the court's proceedings, and which is only expected to get worse as we near the upcoming elections. However, allowing the fear of causing renewed pain to justify a failure to seek justice requires us to ignore the fact that those who were affected by war crimes were already feeling the effects of trauma. Wounds cannot be reopened if they were never fully healed. 

A Legacy of Trauma

The effects of war and genocide go far beyond the political divisions that have surrounded the work of the ICT. The ICT is contentious not just because of the political and religious divisions that are associated with its work, but also because it is dealing with crimes that remain so painful and so present in living memory. The wounds in Bangladesh remain fresh because little has been done to help the victims of those who, like Azam, are now being convicted of their crimes. 

The need for approaches that focus on the victims, not just on creating criminal systems to deal with the perpetrators, is apparent in the experiences of other countries afflicted by war and genocide, many of which have reacted not just with tribunals, but also with community reconciliation programs and the provision of therapy for those dealing with trauma. Studies conducted into the long term effects of the genocide in Rwanda and the violence committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia have revealed the needs of the traumatized generations created by this sort of violence. Many of those who witnessed or experienced violence in these countries were left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can persist for decades, causing insomnia, flashbacks and other symptoms. The people of Bangladesh are suffering similar wounds, though they have too often been ignored or hidden away. The courts alone cannot help individual victims to understand how to deal with PTSD and the long term effects of their experiences, or provide the support and therapy that they need. Obtaining justice can be important to victims, but it is often not enough.


Healing at the scale of the community is also an important part of recovery, and one that has also been neglected in Bangladesh. Political and religious divisions have been perpetuated by the reluctance to confront the past and create a national narrative that encompasses the experiences of all parts of the community. The history taught in school is often biased or conflicting, and there has been little effort made to preserve the stories of those who lived through the events of 1971 in any sort of national archive. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or attacked during the 1971 war, but the exact number may now never be known. The government estimates that the death toll might be up to three million people, but the stories of these people will probably be lost forever. 

Here again, Bangladesh can learn from the experiences of other countries. Since the 1970s, 90 countries have established systems to deal with the effects of war crimes and human rights abuses. Of these, 50 were criminal courts like the ICT. The other 40 were truth commissions, designed to heal the community while revealing the truth of what happened. Approaches like this have helped to bring divided communities together in countries like Rwanda and South Africa. Confronting the past doesn't have to be about reinforcing old divisions. It could also be a way of finally healing those old wounds. 

 Julie Bowen
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