Asif Saleh and Jalal Alamgir
Published in the Daily Star on 9 Mar 2009.
NEVER did we think that we would be haunted with mass graves in independent Bangladesh. Never did we think that we would have to unearth mutilated, bayonet-torn dead bodies. And yet, today, we are assaulted once again by mass graves and the cold-blooded murder of our army officers, their families, and civilians.
We mourn our loss. We offer prayers in solidarity with the families and their loved ones. And in no uncertain terms, we want the killers responsible to be brought to justice.
But how we deal with this trauma and deliver justice will put under the light the very definition of our collective identity. Do we want to remain wedded to endless cycles of revenge? Do we serve the need of the moment, or do we go back to the values for which we fought our liberation war? Do we take expedient shortcuts, or do we assert that the virtues enshrined in our constitution are not negotiable?
The choices we make will show our mettle and worth for decades to come. In all these, we must choose justice over vengeance, and we must choose to strengthen, not dilute, our democracy.
In the coming days, we will be severely tested in three areas. First, who will deal with the perpetrators? Too many times in our history have we handled national crises by delegitimising existing authority and creating new ones. As a result, we have a political culture of disrespect and discontinuity; there is no reliable hand to steady the ship during times of need.
This time, our army showed great professionalism as our political leadership stepped in to defuse the crisis. We need to fully utilise this positive break from past trends, and we must continue to allow our constitutionally-mandated political leadership the central role. There will be emotion-laden arguments for creating new high-powered security and intelligence bodies. We should question the long-term consequences of any such initiative in the context of our fledgling democracy.
Second, how will justice be delivered? While we want to hunt down the rebels quickly, we should not assign law enforcement to the army; otherwise we risk exposing the army to unnecessary controversies at a highly sensitive time. Outsourcing the work of the police to the military, which is not explicitly trained for law enforcement, led to excesses in the past.
It will also not be wise to rush into new laws and tribunals to try the killers. We have strong existing laws to deal with murder, assault, and treason. We dilute our commitment to the constitution every time we bypass existing laws and courts and create alternative channels. We weaken principles of jurisprudence every time we apply laws retroactively. At the end of the day, we make no one secure from arbitrary treatment.
From the 1970s through the just-concluded caretaker government, summary tribunals have violated due process, rotting the integrity of laws to such extent that the innocent have been convicted for political reasons and real criminals and puppet-masters have found it easy to escape through loopholes.
We must not let any doubt arise over the integrity of the trials of the Pilkhana tragedy; otherwise we will have done the victims and their surviving families a great disservice. We must persist with transparent, open trials by fully applying existing laws.
Third, how do we minimise the danger of such gruesome events occurring in future? Amidst all the theories and finger-pointing, the government must set the record straight by disclosing its investigation report transparently to the public. In it, we will confront painful facts. We will also have to ask larger, uncomfortable social questions. But only an environment of openness can help us understand what led some of our own countrymen to spew such hatred and commit the horrific and unjustified killings.
After its national trauma on 9/11, America had unprecedented world support. Yet we saw how quickly it lost that support, and indeed its moral ability to fight extremism, by choosing to take shortcuts with justice.
By translating public support into unchecked power and by labeling as “unpatriotic” any criticism of the government, the Bush administration gave us Guantanamo and Iraq, where hundreds of thousands more died. In that vein the British foreign minister, David Miliband, recently wrote: “We must respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it.”
Let’s not make similar mistakes in Bangladesh. Let’s muster whatever strength we have to ensure we deliver justice decisively while holding firm our values of democracy, rule of law, and due process, however trying the times may be.