Horrors of 1971

21 Jul 2015


Over the last couple of months the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been hearing the cases relating to crimes against humanity committed in 1971 by the local collaborators of marauding Pakistani forces,

 comprising the Jamaat top brass, including its former chief Ghulam Azam, present chief Matiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed and the rest of “who’s who” in the organization as well as Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, senior BNP leader and adviser to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Testimony by prosecution witness continues to revive the spectre of genocide and mass rape, with thousands of women repressed, sexually assaulted, killed and dumped in mass graves.


A vivid picture of destruction of homes and properties and thousands of dead bodies with hands tied at the back floating in rivers, the rapes, and ordeal of the rape victims emerges from the testimony.


The de-classified ‘Fortnightly Intelligence Reports’ prepared in 1971 by Home Ministry of the erstwhile East Pakistan Government for the central Martial Law administration revealed that former Jamaat chief Ghulam Azam led a procession of Peace Committee to express solidarity with the occupation army for launching genocide on the night of 25th March 1971.


Present Jamaat chief Matiur Rahman Nizami hailed the atrocities perpetrated by the occupying forces, describing the massacre of people and rape of Bengali women as “timely action to save Islam and protect Pakistan”. He termed Pakistan ‘the abode of Allah’. War crimes mastermind Ghulam Azam is now dead; prior to his death he was convicted by ICT on war crimes charges. Present Jamaat chief Matiur Rahman Nizami has also been convicted by ICT on same charges and he has been sentenced to death. Two Jamaat leaders Abdul Quader Molla and Mohammad Kamruzzaman have already been executed.


Abbas Uddin Ahmed, a prosecution witness against BNP leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury deposed before the ICT that he had seen dead bodies of pregnant women with unborn child lying in the open, adding Salauddin Quader Chowdhury’s Goods Hill residence in Chittagong was used as torture cell where innumerable freedom fighters were killed, maimed and subjected to brutal torture while women were sexually assaulted before being killed.


Mohammad Salimullah, another prosecution witness against Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, recounted, in his deposition before the ICT, that a red jeep starting from Salauddin Quader Chowdhury’s Goods Hill residence would go around various parts of Chittagong every morning and return in the evening filled with girls and young women. After being brought in the jeep these hapless women would be taken to a neighboring house for night-long sexual assault and rape and the selected ones would be handed over to the Pakistani army officers. ‘I can still hear the shriek of these girls’ said Salimullah as he broke down sobbing while deposing.


Earlier, a prosecution witness in the case filed against senior Jamaat ideologue Delwar Hossen Saeedi, who has now been awarded life-term by Supreme Court by overturning death sentence awarded earlier by ICT, broke down with emotion when he told the court how Saeedi along with other local collaborators, picked up three of his sisters from his home and handed them over to a Pakistani army camp at Pirojpur. The witness could not control his emotion as he said that his sisters were ‘repeatedly raped in the camp’ and sent back home after three days. While sobbing he also told the court that ‘They forced me, my parents and siblings to convert to Islam and say prayers at a mosque’.


Another witness in Saeedi case, Madhusudan Gharami, could not hold his tears back while deposing in the ICT as he described how he returned home one day to know that his wife had been raped by Saeedi. The couple was newly married then. While weeping he said “my wife had been raped. ... she was in great pain, but she told me “don’t worry about me; you go and hide, otherwise they will kill you’ and I fled”. After the war his wife Shefali gave birth to a daughter. ‘The villagers used to say a lot of things for her’, Madhusudan added. Traumatized by the rape and stigma the couple decided that Shefali would go to live in India with the daughter for safety. That was their last meeting and he never heard anything from Shefali since then.


Estimates of those raped by the Pak occupation forces and their local collaborators vary from 200,000 to 400,000. Dr Geoffrey Davis, a physician who worked in Bangladesh following the liberation war on request of World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the commonly cited figures were ‘very conservative’ compared to real numbers.


Dr Davis also said that he heard of numerous suicides by victims and infanticides during the course of his work and estimated that around 5000 rape victims had performed self induced abortions. A doctor at the rehabilitation center in Dhaka reported 1, 70,000 abortion of pregnancies caused by rape and birth of 40,000 war babies. Many of the victims suffered from sexual infections and feelings of intense shame and humiliation. A large number of them were ostracized by their families and society forcing them to commit suicide.


Pak army personnel accompanied by local collaborators used to conduct night time raids sexually assaulting women in front of their families - raping married women in presence of husbands, girls in front of their mother and mothers in front of their girls - to terrorize the families of freedom fighters. Young girls and women were kidnapped and kept in special army camps where they were repeatedly raped / gang raped. Many of those held in the army camps were murdered after being raped or they committed suicides.


Time magazine reported on the girls who had been kidnapped and kept in military camps turned in to brothels:


“One of the more horrible revelations concern 563 Bengali women, some only 18, who have been held captive in Dhaka’s dingy military cantonment since the first day of the fighting. Seized from Dhaka University and private homes and forced into military brothels, the girls are all three to five months pregnant. The Army is reported to have enlisted gynecologists to abort the girls held at military installations. But for those at Dhaka cantonment it was too late for abortion. The military has started freeing the girls, few at a time, carrying the new born babies”.


After the war, the rape victims went through a second ordeal. A report from the International Commission of Jurists said ‘whatever the precise numbers, the teams of British and American surgeons carrying out abortions and the widespread government efforts to persuade people to accept these girls in to the community, testify the large scale on which rape occurred. It also said that senior Pakistani army officers not only allowed their men to rape Bengali girls but also enslaved young ones for themselves to be used as comfort girl.


Bangladesh is at a crossroad of its history. After more than four decades of waiting, the nation got an opportunity to vindicate its grievances for wrongs done to its millions of freedom fighters and freedom loving people. Although it was not possible to round up all the culprits responsible for the atrocities perpetrated in 1971, it is nonetheless admirable that sincere efforts are being made to catch hold of the kingpins who were identified with commission of these crimes, and the nation is hoping that justice will be finally done to the victims of atrocities.


As far as the quality of war crimes trial is concerned there is no room for any misgiving.  Every opportunity is given to the accused to defend them. They have access to their lawyers and defence witnesses. They also have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court against the tribunal’s verdict. It may also be noted that Bangladesh, which recently ratified the Rome Statute that calls on countries to bring their own laws in line with international standards for prosecution of individuals who commit crimes against humanity, has assured the world community that the trial process would conform to the highest international standards.


Those who perpetrated inhuman brutalities on the freedom fighters, raped women and or handed over women to their mentors for being raped as well as those who unleashed terror to thwart the liberation war under the cover of Islam are greater criminals than their Pakistani counterparts and deserve no leniency.

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