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United Nations to assist as Bangladesh prepares war crime trials

Oliver Scanlan
8 April 2009

Since coming to power, the Awami Legaue Grand Alliance has promised to bring to trial those accused of war crimes during the 1971 "Liberation War", which ended with the founding of Bangladesh within the territory formerly belonging to the eastern wing of Pakistan. An important step was taken in achieving this goal on Wednesday when the United Nations announced that its war crimes specialists will be made available to the government of Bangladesh to offer advice on what is still a contentious and emotive subject.

The war, waged by Indian-backed Bangladeshi guerrilla forces against the Pakistani army, was sparked by the detention of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then head of the Awami League, by the military clique that ruled Pakistan under President Yahya Khan. Sheikh Mujib's party had won 167 of East Pakistan's 169 seats in the 1970 general election. Instead of accommodating the verdict of the democratic process, Yahya ordered Sheikh Mujib's arrest on 26 March 1971 while, at the same time, launching Operation Searchlight.

Operation Searchlight comprised nothing less than an armed attack on East Pakistan. Pakistani forces and their Bangladeshi collaborators are accused of mass murder and rape, among other war crimes. It is estimated by Bangladeshi sources that three million Bangladeshis were killed in the war, though this figure is questioned by some external experts who say that this fails to take into account Bangladeshis who fled East Pakistan and did not return.

The list of those accused of war crimes will likely include members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a major opposition party which is against the trials taking place. UN Resident Co-ordinator Renata Lok Dessallien, who heads UN operations in Bangladesh, said that the UN had supplied the names of key experts who had assisted in establishing similar tribunals in other countries, saying "there are some countries where mistakes were made and we don't want Bangladesh to repeat those mistakes."

A third of NGOs "do nothing"

On Tuesday, Bangladesh Social Welfare Minister Enamul Haque Mostofa Shahid told reporters that up to a third of NGOs registered with the government are doing nothing. There are over 150,000 NGOs in Bangladesh and Mr Shahid said that they will all soon be compelled to reapply for registration with a new regulatory body shortly to be announced by the government. The prerequisites for ratification with this body will include the possession of a clear, written constitution and satisfactory mechanisms for ensuring that funds are properly managed. The move comes as part of a broader effort to stamp out NGOs that support militancy and extremism.

British NGO financier arrested by counter-terrorism officers

Faisal Mostofa was arrested in Gazipur by members of Bangladesh's elite Rapid Action Battalion on Monday. Although a citizen of Bangladesh, he lives in the United Kingdom where he reportedly heads the charity "Green Crescent". He is being held in connection with a substantial cache of arms discovered by the RAB at a madrassa and orphanage funded by Green Crescent in Bhola on 24 March this year. On Tuesday, a Bhola court granted the police ten days in which to interrogate him. At the same time, in Britain, the Charities Commission has announced an investigation into Green Crescent and its activities.

The cache of arms discovered on 24 March included shotguns and explosives. The RAB also recovered extremist publications and jihadi literature. It is believed that the madrassa was a militant training camp and it is known that Green Crescent had plans to establish two more madrassas in Bhola.

Opposition leader to lose home

A week after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke out over the issue, the cabinet on Wednesday cancelled the lease on a property given to the principal opposition leader Khaleda Zia after the assassination of her husband, then President Ziaur Zia, in 1981. The rationale for the confiscation is that a second house was subsequently awarded to Zia in 1982. Spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office Abul Kalam Azad said that the cabinet had simply decided to cancel one of the leases.

In her own denunciation of Zia's continued possession of the house last week, Sheikh Hasina said that the rules of the cantonment, which is a sensitive region of Dhaka, housing the headquarters of all three armed services, prohibited using the residence for political activities and taking out a mortgage. In calling for Zia to leave the house voluntarily, the prime minister observed that she was in material breach of both of these regulations.

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