THE 1971 BANGLADESH LIBERATION WAR
The 1947 partition of India resulted in the emergence of the country of Pakistan out of two territories: West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). As a response to the Awami League victory in the 1970 general elections, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1971, a massive military operation designed to curb the nationalist movement in East Pakistan. The armed conflict became known as the “Liberation War” and lasted until 16 December 1971.
The conflict involved widespread killings and other atrocities –forced displacement, disappearances, destruction and confiscation of property, torture and sexual violence– carried out by the Pakistan Army with the assistance of religious and political groups from East and West Pakistan. The exact number of victims of the conflict is not established. Bangladeshi authorities claim that 3 million people were killed while a Pakistan Government investigation states the figure of 26,000. The conflict also led to a major humanitarian crisis, with eight to ten millions refugees fleeing to India. Sexual violence was allegedly used as a weapon of war, with an estimated 200.000 women victims of rape.
INTERNATIONAL CRIMES TRIBUNAL ACT (ICTA)
On 20 June 1973, the ICTA was adopted to provide for the prosecution of any persons for “crimes against humanity, genocide, crimes against peace, war crimes, violation of any humanitarian rules and any other crimes under international law” committed in Bangladesh. The ICTA, using the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal Charter as a template, was to serve as a basis for a national tribunal.
However, efforts ended with the military coup of 1975. The new regime also repealed the 1972 Collaborator’s Act, which had been designed to bring to account those who had collaborated with the Pakistan Army. As a result, prosecutions of “collaborators” who did not fall under the 30 November 1973 amnesty were stopped, and all those detained and convicted were pardoned and released.
INTERNATIONAL CRIMES TRIBUNAL (ICT)
In 2008, the ICTA was resuscitated in the election manifesto of the Awami League. In 2009, the elected Awami League government adopted a resolution to initiate the establishment of a civilian court, which led to the 2009 amendment of the ICTA. In March 2010, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was set up and its Rules of Procedure were adopted on 15 July 2010.
The ICT has generated criticism from the international community, including the UN Working Group on arbitrary detention, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues. This criticism mainly addresses the lack of fair trial standards. The European Union has also voiced its concern with regards to the potential application of the death penalty.
LIMITATIONS TO THE TRIAL OF INTERNATIONAL CRIMES
Several legislative and executive orders granted immunity to groups involved in the 1971 Liberation War. In February 1973, shortly before the ICTA, the Bangladesh National Liberation Struggle (Indemnity) Order granted immunity to all freedom fighters for acts committed in connection with the “Liberation Struggle”. On 30 November 1973, a general amnesty was declared for all Bangladesh citizens who had collaborated with the Pakistan Army, with the exception of those accused of murder, rape, arson or genocide. Finally, the early 1974 tripartite agreement organised the return of Pakistani prisoners of wars, including those accused of committing war crimes, without charging them.
The ICTA was, however, never repealed. It provides for the prosecution of Bangladeshi nationals who were not granted immunity for international crimes committed during the Liberation War.