Domestic War Crimes Tribunal in the International Context: Bangladesh

Written by: Iffat Rahman [1]

Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak Military. Evidence continues to mount that MLA authorities have a list of Awami League supporters whom they are systematic and shooting them down.[i]

The Second World War has significantly shaped the human rights field and it has led to many Conventions and international laws and furthered the establishment of the rule of law for war crimes and prosecuting war criminals. Furthermore, to prevent and punish future crimes against humanity, in the shadow of the Holocaust, on 9 December 1948, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which came into effect in 1951. One year later, Pakistan signed the treaty on Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide on 11 December 1948 and ratified it on 12 October 1957. However, even the treaty did not prevent the Pakistani Army from committing one of the worst genocides in 1971 when Bangladesh was separated.  Justice was never served for the victims until recently when the government of Bangladesh established the International Crimes Tribunals (ICT) where they are prosecuting people who collaborated with the Pakistani Army in 1971.

Recently, the ICT in Bangladesh has created a division within country in half and it had been reported that more than 80 people were killed in clashes over the Tribunal’s verdict and chaos followed. Many Hindu houses were burned down. The international justice community has been quick to point out that the current party in power, Awami League, and the current leadership of Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, is after revenge rather than justice. Modeled after the Nuremberg trials, the tribunal, which has commenced in 2010, repeatedly faced criticism from the international community about the fairness and the openness of the trials. So far, the ICT has indicted 11 people for collaborating with the Pakistani Army and most of them hold high positions within the two opposition parties, Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladeshi Nationalist Party. Abul Kalam Azad, member of Jamaat-e-Islami, was sentenced to death in absentia and the ICT gained quite a bit of attention after Mr. Abdul Quader Molla, senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, whose previous sentence of life imprisonment was overturned and received death penalty after a popular protest. Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, leader of the Jaamaat-e-Islam, was sentenced to death.

Is it genocide?

Along with the genocide in Rwanda, the Holocaust in Germany, the Bangladeshi atrocity was one of the worst atrocities committed in the 2Oth century. However, unlike the other genocides, the Bangladeshi genocide is one of the least studied genocides in the modern day history.  Bangladesh suffered a violent birth and whether or not, the war between East Pakistan and West Pakistan was genocide has been debated among the scholars many times. The war created 10 million refugees. According to the Convention on the Prevention of and Punishment, genocide is:

Article 2

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • (a)      Killing members of the group;
  • (b)      Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • (c)      Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to      bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • (d)      Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • (e)      Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[2]


The massacre that happened in Bangladesh clearly fits within the realm of the definition of genocide. At that time, press rarely called it genocide but it is without a doubt that the Pakistani Army targeted Hindus selectively. The Hindu Bengalis became the Jews of Germany for the Pakistani Army. They were hunted down, killed, and the Pakistani Army unleashed a massacre that took place on defenseless villagers, peasants, students, mothers, and children.  According to confessions by Pakistani army soldiers and officers, they were ordered to kill Hindus, Kafirs (non-Muslims) and to show no mercy. Bengalis were seen as an inferior race. Lastly, India spoke out against the genocide, condemning and calling it,  “savage and medieval butchery” and “preplanned carnage and systematic genocide.”[ii] Telegrams were sent from the American Embassy to Washington labeling the massacre as “selective genocide”.  Bengali Army officers within the Pakistani Army were disarmed and executed. The massacre happened under a control command system and it was well planned by the West Pakistani Army. According to, A. Dirk Moses,

Yahya Khan, the Pakistani President, was “pushing through its own ‘final solution’ of the East Bengal problem.” Officers he interviewed told him that they were “determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing off two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years.” “Pogroms” were instituted against recalcitrant villages in “kill and burn” missions. Entire “villages [were] devastated by ‘punitive action’,” which authorities called a “cleansing process.” Hindus were targeted for “annihilation,” because they were thought to be a minority of unscrupulous merchants who dominated the economy and siphoned off wealth to India.[iii]

When a massacre happens at a level where millions of people were killed because of there is a difference in religion, ethnicity and race, then it is a clear case of genocide.


A Brief History

There were many events led up to the genocide in Bangladesh. It is impossible to separate Bangladesh’s history from the partition of India. The partition also separated Bengal province of British into East Bengal and later on to East Pakistan and the West Bengal.  In 1948, Bengali movement starts where 54% of the population in Pakistan spoke Bengali and minority of the population spoke Urdu in West Pakistan where population also spoke Punjabi, Baluchi, Pashtun and Sindhi. Before that year, in 1947, a resolution advocated for Urdu to be the sole language of Pakistan, which caused Bengalis to protest, and later transformed into a movement. In 1949, the All Pakistani Awami Muslim League was formed and later changed into All Pakistani Awami League. In 1955, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then elected General Secretary, was re-elected as the leader of the Party and name of the Party changed completely to Awami League. Pakistan became an Islamic Republic and Bengali became a state language along with Urdu. In 1956, Awami League leaders demanded for provincial autonomy in the drafted constitution of Pakistan. On 1958, General Ayb Khan exiles the president of Pakistan and assumes all power. Slowly, over the years, Sheikh Mujibur became the prominent person in East Bengal and called for independence of Bangladesh. The atrocity started with a military operation called, “Operation Searchlight” which aimed to crush the Bengali movement and due to West Pakistan’s view of Bengalis being racially inferior.[iv] Attack was mostly targeted towards Hindus in East Pakistan and the casualty was great. According to some sources, three million people have died, making Bangladeshi Genocide to be one of the biggest genocides in the 20th century. The Pakistani Army targeted students, intellectuals and raped women and more than 7,000 people have died in the first massacred by the Pakistani Army. According to President Yahya Khan, Pakistani troops have to “kill three million of them (Bengalis)” in order to destroy the movement. Many scholars believe that the Pakistani generals thought Bengali National Movement was initiated by the Bengali intellectuals and Hindus, which made them the primary target.[v]

It is without a doubt students were targeted because students called for provincial autonomy, progressive laws and not a division along the line of religion.  The students were seen as a threat as much as the Language Movement that was taking place but the students later became the most prominent force for the evolution of Bengali Nationalism in Bangladesh.[vi] Students at the Dhaka University were to raise the flag of an Independent Bangladesh.  Pakistani Army violently attacked the dormitories of Dhaka University where a substantial amount of non-Muslim resided at that time. It should be noted that the massacre that took place happened on 25th March took place on Dhaka University campus and the campus was shelled and remaining students were shot, killed and gender or age didn’t matter in the killing spree.  When the dorms were emptied out, killing spree moved to villages. Students were shot at sight, interrogated and tortured to death.[vii]

It is estimated that the Pakistani Army raped approximately 200,000 women and girls.[viii] Pakistani Army and their collaborators have made girls and women targets through direct rape and through gendercide where men were killed off leaving the women vulnerable.

After 9 months of guerilla tactics by the Bengalis, in the final weeks of the war, India heavily supported Bangladesh and on 16th December 1971 Pakistan surrendered to Bengali and Indian troops.[ix]

A domestic affair

Technically known as the International Criminal Tribunal, there is very little international commitment is made to the trial and there is no way of knowing how much international standards are being made applied. When Bangladesh ratified the ICC Rome Statute in 2010, it became the first country in South Asia to ratify the treaty. The Rome Statute was mainly ratified so the government of Bangladesh would be able to proceed with the trials.  The International Crimes Tribunal Act 1973 was established to proceed with the prosecuting people who have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under international law. Under the ICT Act, many people were being investigated along with Pakistani Army officers. The investigation brought in charges against 195 Pakistani Army officers; however, the Pakistani Army officers were given amnesty and returned back to Pakistan under a trilateral treaty between Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. No other government took the initiative to prosecute the people who have collaborated with Pakistani Army until now. [x] When India brought the case against Pakistan to the International Court of Justice for violation of Genocide Convention, the charges were dropped because of diplomatic agreement and Bangladesh resisted in taking action against Pakistan at the ICJ.[xi]

ICT is one of the most fascinating and complicated war tribunals to take place and it can set a precedent example for countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia.  International paradigm has begun to shift and the power has been shifting to Asia. This Tribunal will play a big role in establishing a shift in practicing international laws in a domestic setting and also because it is not an UN tribunal and it had been fully sponsored and dictated by the government of Bangladesh.

According to Sanoj Rajan, Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University,  “decision to avoid any international collaboration in the ICT was exclusively that of the Govt. of Bangladesh. The only non Bangladeshi involvement was that of United States Ambassador – at – Large for War Crimes, Mr. Rapp which was vehemently resisted by the Bangladesh.” He believes that “an initiative like this is always welcomed by the international community including UN, but the concern majorly is about the fairness of the proceedings. In ICT also there are many reasons why international community should be concerned on the fairness of the trial and that is what reflects in most of the literature on the topic.”[xii] The European Union also offered to assist with the tribunal.

The case of death penalty

One of the key differences between the ICT and the other international tribunals it the implication of death penalty. Under the Rome Statute, the ICC is not permitted to give death penalty to the guilty and currently no other tribunal has managed to give death penalty. When it comes to death penalty, Bangladesh is a retentionist country and methods of practicing the death penalty are by hanging and shooting. It is highly debatable if death penalty is unconstitutional in Bangladesh or not. Bangladesh still practices death penalty but the number of death penalty that has been decreased dramatically within the last year. Most of the death penalties took place since 2008 was for murder. Altogether with seven other countries, there were only 38 official executions that were carried out but there were 45 death penalty verdicts were imposed in Bangladesh in the last year.[xiii] However, according to Death Penalty Worldwide, an organization that monitors death penalty and the countries that are practicing it, claims that there were zero death penalties and there are at least 1172 people waiting to be prosecuted under death penalty.

It should be noted that that Bangladesh is part of the International International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Technically, ICCPR, does not prohibit death penalty and second Optional Protocool to the ICCPR calls for aboliton of death pentaly during peacetime and Bangladesh have not adopted the second optional protocol to the first treaty.   Mr. Abdul Quader Molla’s death sentence presents an interesting dillemma for the ICT. It also begs the question if the trials are fair and meeting international standards. In the beggining, Mr. Molla was given life imprisonment; however, after a popular protest, he recieved a life sentence. Under the ICT Act the government can give him the death sentence but the trials are closed off to the international community. According to the Bangladesh Laws (Revision and Declaration Act 1973)

Article 121 states that:

Whoever wages war against Bangladesh, or attempts to wage such war, or abets the waging of such war, shall be punished with death, or 42 [imprisonment] for life, and shall also be liable to fine. Illustration A joins an insurrection against Bangladesh. A has committed the offence defined in this section.

And under the ICT Act 1973, under the sentence article,

20. (1) The Judgement of a Tribunal as to the guilt or the innocence of any accused person shall give the reasons on which it is based: Provided that each member of the Tribunal shall be competent to deliver a judgement of his own.

(2) Upon conviction of an accused person, the Tribunal shall award sentence of death or such other punishment proportionate to the gravity of the crime as appears to the Tribunal to be just and proper.[xiv]

These articles clearly give permission to give the death sentence for the guilty, however, this becomes confusing since Mr. Molla was awarded life imprisonment and the guilty verdict was changed to the death penalty. Death penalty for Mr. Molla was sought after the protest on 5 February 2013, calling for a death sentence. Since Bangladesh is a party to the ICCPR, Bangladesh is obligated to provide fair trials for Mr. Molla.  Overturning a sentence to death penalty makes Bangladesh guilty of violating the ICCPR treaty, under the provision of Article 15, where it clearly states that, “nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time when the criminal offence was committed.”[xv] The tribunal in Bangladesh repeatedly failed to keep up with the international standards when it comes fair trails. Organizations such as International Commission for Jurists and No Peace Without Justice have also questioned its authenticity of the trial.

The first successful trials took place on genocide was with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. However, had the Bangladeshi tribunal proceeded in the 1974, it could have set precedent for the war crimes tribunals now. However, there is an increasing concern about the fairness of the trials that are taking place. The Bangladeshi government should be applauded for their efforts in trying to bring justice to the people who have suffered greatly and to the rape victims, but it seems like the Bangladeshi government is after vengeance than justice. The Bangladeshi government should welcome collaboration from the international justice community. Together, they can help to bring justice and help to reconcile.

[1] The author is a graduate of McGill University and currently residing in Canada. She has recently interned with civil party lawyers at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.  Before then, she worked on Will to Intervene Project at the Montreal Institute of Genocide Studies.

[i] U.S. Consulate (Dacca) Cable, Selective Genocide, March 28, 1971, Confidential, 2 pp.
Source: Record Group 59, Subject Numeric File 1970-73, Pol and Def, Box 2530

[ii] Moses, Dirk A. The United Nations, Humanitarianism,  and Human Rights War Crimes/Genocide Trials for Pakistani Soldiers in Bangladesh,  1971–1974  See :

[iii]  Ibid. Moses, Dirk A.

[iv] Shariach, Lisa. Rape as Genocide: Bangladesh, the Former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda  New Political Science.  See:

[v] Bangladesh Genocide Archive. See:

[vii] Ibid. Ahmed, Anis.

[viii] Genocide Watch. The 1971 Bangladesh Genocide. Coordinator of the International Alliance to End Genocide.  See:

[ix] Ibid. Genocide Watch.

[x] Jalil, Abdul.  War Crimes Tribunals in Bangladesh: A Socio-Political and Legal Impact Analysis ICSR. See:

[xi] Ibid. Genocide Watch.

[xii] Email correspondent with Professor Sanoj Rajan

[xiii]  Keck, Zachary. The Death Penalty: Fading Into the Past? The Diplomat. See:

[xiv] Government of Bangladesh. International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973, . See:

[xv] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. University of Minnesota. See: