Six members of ‘Razakar Bahini’, a locally recruited paramilitary force that cooperated with the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, were sentenced to death on Thursday (July 28) for ‘crimes against humanity’ by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal.
Hailing from the southwestern Khulna district of the country, A Amjad Hossain Howladar, Sahar Ali Sardar, Atiyar Rahman, Motachim Billah, Kamal Uddin Goldar and Nazrul Islam, who is currently on the run, have been sentenced to death. The three-member tribunal headed by Judge Mohammad Shahinur Islam found them guilty of ‘crimes against humanity’, including mass murders, torture and arson.
In 2010, nearly 40 years after Pakistan’s violent struggle for independence, Bangladesh established its International Crimes Tribunal to bring justice to those accused of committing war crimes against its people.
Who were the Razakars?
The Razakars were an auxiliary force of the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh War of 1971. The approximately 50,000 Razakars, mainly composed of pro-Pakistani Bengalis and Biharis from Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), assisted the army in attacks on the local population and were accused of committing horrific atrocities.
Razakar literally means ‘volunteer’ or ‘helper’ in Persian and Urdu, but has since come to mean ‘collaborator’ and is associated with betrayal in Bangladesh. According to the anthropologist Nayanika Mookherjee, it is used as abuse.
Razakars mainly consisted of Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslims and religious parties opposed to the separation of East and West Pakistan such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Al Badr and Al Shams. Ethnic Bihars who moved to Bangladesh after partition in 1947 were particularly denounced as foreigners and collaborators by other local residents, as argued by Mookherjee in her 2015 book The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971.
The nationalist struggle in Bangladesh was brutally suppressed by the Pakistani army and the allied Razakars, with the death toll of 300,000 to 3 million civilians, the rape of 100,000 to 400,000 women and 25,000 to 195,000 forced pregnancies. However, the exact figures are not fully known and remain the subject of debate.
Fate after the Liberation War
After Bangladesh gained independence in December 1971, the newly formed government very quickly banned organizations collaborating with Pakistani state forces, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, and many of its influential leaders fled to Pakistan.
The Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order was passed in 1972 and the following year, the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman enacted the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act in 1973 to investigate and prosecute those who committed atrocities during the war.
Mookherjee notes that 37,000 employees were identified, but about 26,000 were given general government amnesty in November 1973, while the rest were sentenced to various sentences or continued on trial.
After Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a coup d’état by parts of the Bangladeshi army in August 1975 and the ruling Awami League was ousted from power, the generals who took over Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim League, allowed other Islamist parties to had fled the country to return, and in time many of the alleged war criminals took up important positions in government.
During the period of military rule between 1975 and 1990, General Ziaur Rehman (1975-1981) became the de facto head of state. Zia repealed the Collaborator’s Act, released the remaining people jailed for war crimes and facilitated the return of Shah Azizur Rahman and Ghulam Azam, controversial high-profile figures who had opposed Bangladesh’s nationalist movement and had previously been accused of being traitors .
After becoming president of the country in 1977, Ziaur Rahman invited Shah Azizur Rahman to join his newly formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), making him the Minister of Labor and Industry. He was later appointed Prime Minister of Bangladesh by Ziaur in April 1979.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, which allegedly aided the atrocities against Bangladeshi nationalists in 1971, joined the BNP after returning to the country and its leaders were cabinet ministers in the BNP government from 2001-2006.
Road to justice
In March 2010, the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina established the three-member International Crime Tribunal of Bangladesh to investigate and bring justice to those suspected of being involved in torture and murder during the country’s struggle for independence. The ruling Awami League had pledged to prosecute war criminals from 1971 and won a landslide in the 2008 general election.
Abul Kalam Azad (aka Bachchu Razakar), a former leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, was the first person to be convicted by the tribunal in 2013. Witness statements accused him of being a Razakar and he was found guilty of 8 charges of murder, rape, arson and looting, mainly towards the Hindu community of Bangaldesh. Having fled the country in 2012, he was sentenced to death in absentia.
On December 15, 2019, the day before the 49th Victory Day in Bangladesh (a national holiday in honor of the surrender of the Pakistani army in Dhaka), the government published a list of 10,789 Razakars who had collaborated with the Pakistani army in the committing atrocities against Bengalis. during the war. This was the first time the government of Bangladesh has made such a list public, and it included the names of 127 politicians and influential people, as reported by the Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper.
“We have published the names so that the next generation knows about the collaborators,” Liberation War Minister AKM Mozammel Haque said in 2019.