Wednesday, October 17, 2012

West's two faces on Bangladesh war criminals

 FOR the right-wing Daily Mail it must have seemed just what the doctor ordered.

'NHS boss faces death penalty over charges of torture and 18 murders in Bangladesh'

One of Britain's most important Muslim leaders – who has a senior role in the NHS – is to be charged with 18 murders by a war crimes tribunal in his native Bangladesh, investigators have told The Mail on Sunday.
Coming amid the growing outcry over Jimmy Saville's visits to hospitals, the Mail story appeared timely, and to hit two targets at once - Muslims and the NHS.

Unlike a lot of the chaff on these topics that appears in the tabloid presss, the story by Abul Taher, published on October 13, was serious and factual, even if the headline's reference to Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin's status as an "NHS boss" might have been a bit misleading.

Mueen-Uddin won't have been in a position to decide anything about your treatment or operation, recruitment and remuneration of staff, or whether your local A&E closes. Not even about hospital car parking. He is described as director of Muslim Spiritual Care Provision in the NHS and chairman of the Multi-Faith Group for Healthcare Chaplaincy.

But as the Mail says, he "is accused of abducting, torturing and killing 18 journalists, academics and doctors during the bloody war of independence in Bangladesh in 1971"

If you read on to the end of the story you would find:
A Department of Health spokesman said: 'Mr Mueen-Uddin is not employed by either the Department of Health or the NHS.

'He was head of Muslim spiritual care in the NHS, and chair of the Multi-Faith Group for Healthcare Chaplaincy, an independent organisation which provides advice to the Department of Health about multi-faith healthcare chaplaincy on behalf of all Faith Groups.
.Nevertheless, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin's background, the allegations against him, and how far he got in this country, deserve to be examined.  

During the Bangladesh war, forced when the Pakistan rulers refused to accept election results, thousands of people were killed, not only by the Palistan army, but by irregulars sponsored and armed by Islamicist parties opposed to Bangladesh seceding. The biggest of these was Jamaat e-Islami, which has wings in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, and has supported mujaheddin in Kashmir. One of the armed groups supported by its student wing in Bangladesh was the Al Badr brigade. 

Bangladesh's war crimes investigators say that Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, while working as a journalist for a newspaper called the Daily Purbadesh in the capital Dhaka, was also said to be a secret member of  the Al-Badr Brigade, which abducted and killed opponents. Mueen-Uddin fled Bangladesh shortly after independence, going via India, Nepal and then Pakistan, from where he caught a flight to London in the early Seventies.

Sanaul Huq, the Inspector-General of Bangladesh's national police force, who is co-ordinating the ICT investigation, said his investigators believe that Mr Mueen-Uddin killed dozens of people during the independence war, but they can link him only to 18 murders with evidence and eyewitness testimonies.

The ICT said  Mueen-Uddin and his associates allegedly subjected their victims to horrendous torture before killing them and dumping their bodies in sports grounds which earned the nickname 'killing fields'.

Mr Huq told The Mail on Sunday: 'They abducted an eye doctor, and then gouged his eyes out before killing him and dumping his body.'They abducted a cardiologist and cut out his heart before killing him and dumping his body.'They kidnapped a woman journalist, and cut her breasts off before killing her. Her decomposing body was later found with her breasts cut off.

'These victims were chosen because they were leading figures in the independence movement. Mueen-Uddin was a leading figure when it comes to killing activists. This is why we want to try him in court.'As soon as charges are made – which I can guarantee will happen in days – we will request the British Government to hand him back to Bangladesh, and we will ask Interpol for his arrest. We will use all means, diplomatic and legal, to bring him back. If we fail, we will try him in absentia.'

Bangladeshi socialists in London alleged years ago that war criminals fleeing justice in Bangladesh were being admitted to Britain, with the apparent connivanmce of the British authorities, and  finding a niche for themselves in such fields as religious education. The East London Mosque was singled out for mention.Mueeen-Uddin is vice chairman of the East London Mosque and has worked with Dawatul-Islam, an educational and youth organisation seen as pro-Jamaat e-Islam.

Despite its record, Jamaat e-Islami has been able to function as a legal political party in Bangladesh, as well as raising funds in London, It was in government for a time in coalition with the Bangladesh National Party, between 2000-2008. During this time it received praise from the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, who considered Jamaat-e-Islami as a democratic party and didn’t find any evidence of Jamaat being involved in bombing or connected to bombing.’ -The Bangladesh Observer report (5 August 2006.   This did not prevent Jamat e-Islami leading anti-US protests during the recent row over a "blasphemous" film. 

The return of the Awami League to government in 2008 set in motion the long-delayed invesyigation and pursuit of the war criminals, and yet Jamaat e Islami continues to present itself as the innocent victim of a political witch-hunt, and continues to enjoy sympathetic backing, free or paid for, from some quarters in the West.

In Open Democracy,Gita Sahgal has been looking at the Bangladeshi party's background and its backing. ( Bangladesh: the forgotten template of 20th century war
"A recent article by Elliot Wilson in the Huffington Post asked whether British aid was being used to fund a crackdown on human rights in Bangladesh. The article did not discuss where the £250 million given by the British government is spent or whether that spending is effective. Wilson argues that the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina has undertaken ‘the most sustained assault on freedom of speech in the 41 years since independence’. A major reason for his claim is the arrest of Mir Quasem Ali, whom he describes as a leading member of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, head of a major charity and a media magnate, arguing that he has been arrested solely for his public criticism of a Tribunal established to try crimes committed during the Bangladesh war of liberation in 1971.

Gita says many Bangladeshis living at home and abroad are concerned about the human rights situation in their country. But althouh human rights advocates and independent observers agree that many of the tribunal processes are flawed, they don't accept that the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was established solelyfor Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to get rid of her political opposition. 
 Indeed the tribunal has helped raise human rights issues by addressing impunity for mass crimes. And many people see a reckoning with the past as a necessary reassurance over their future.

"Human rights concerns in Bangladesh are far wider than the Wilson suggests. For instance, the government has been reluctant to accept new refugees fleeing violence in Burma. Unfortunately for Wilson’s argument that this is the worst attack on freedom of speech in Bangladesh’s history – the opposition is also implicated in targeted attacks on minorities when they came to power in a BNP and Jamaat e Islami coalition.

"Fear of their rise to power again has lead religious minorities to campaign hard for Bangladesh to return to its secular founding principles. At meetings in the East London tabernacle and at the House of Commons a number of organisations representing religious minorities such as Ahmadiyyas, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, described pogroms against them as soon as the BNP came to power in a previous election. Syed Anas Pasha, representing Bangladeshi journalists, described how journalists reporting on these attacks were themselves attacked.

"For those whose lives are threatened by fundamentalists, 1971 is not simply a bad memory but a current threat; one which has largely disappeared from public memory abroad."

Gita Sahgal says that Bangladesh 1971 is the "forgotten template" for conflicts that define the late 20th century, from former Yugoslavia, through Rwanda during the 1990s, and on a smaller scale in Gujarat, India in 2002. "The Bangladesh story tells us what happens when a military crackdown is supported by militias composed of religious fundamentalists with their own agenda".

The Jamaat e Islami was already known as a violent political party of the far right in Pakistan, bent on attacking minorities and creating an Islamic state. Indeed, their founder Maulana Maududi, who had opposed the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, is regarded as the first modern theorist of an Islamic state. On March 25th 1971, the Pakistan army launched a huge military crackdown in Dhaka – including an assault on Dhaka University in which many staff and students were rounded up and killed. Hindu halls of residence were particularly targeted.
The most notorious event that al Badr are said to have instigated, is known as the ‘killing of the intellectuals’. In the days before the surrender of the Pakistani army, dozens of professors, journalists, doctors and others were picked up, taken to torture centres, and killed.
 Wilson fails to mention that Mir Quasem Ali is under investigation by the tribunal, not for what he said about it, but for what he is alleged to have done during 1971. According to the Bangladesh press, the charges against the Jamaat leader include that he was the Chittagong unit commander of Al-Badr, described as ‘a vigilante outfit mobilised by Jamaat's erstwhile student wing Islami Chhatra Sangha’, and was third in the outfit's command structure. The investigation relates to atrocities alleged to have been committed by al Badr.
It is not surprising that Wilson, who calls himself an investigative journalist, doesn’t mention any of this. A recent book on 1971 by Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, which has been comprehensively rebutted by Naeem Mohaiemen, manages to claim to interview all sides, to give a balanced account of what happened. As I showed in my analysis of the book, the author failed to interview any members of the Jamaat e Islami, or address allegations of their role in the conflict.  The story has simply vanished from her work.

David Bergman, himself a critic of the Tribunal, has investigated the Jamaat e Islami’s extensive lobbying efforts in the USA, and raised questions about whether the lobbying firm hired by Mir Quasem Ali in New York acted legally under the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938.

This Act requires that any lobbying firm acting on behalf of a foreign political party must register itself with the Department of Justice. The firm in question has signed contracts with Mr Ali (whose contract was terminated) and his brother worth $310,000 to work on exactly the same issues – ‘the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal and political opposition matters.’ Later they were reported to have dropped the work on opposition matters.

Given the extensive well funded lobbying effort by lawyers and lobbyists hired by the Jamaat e Islami or individuals connected to them, we might ask whether the Huffington Post article is part of this extensive lobbying effort, or driven by a genuine concern for fair trial and free speech. Both human rights and development efforts have been driven forward in Bangladesh by the efforts of  activists committed to secular values and gender equality. Without these efforts, the Awami League would not have made a commitment to hold trials in the first place, nor be able to show such a good record on development".
Much as imperialist Western governments and their media may affect distaste for religious reactionaries such as Jama'at e Islaimi, they also have to consider whether the diversions and divisions they create are not preferable to some of the things that go with commitment to secular values and economy. That's a consideration which applies in both Tower Hamlets and Bangladesh.

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