The long-awaited trials of Pilkhana massacre began on November 24, 2009. On November 5, 2013, after nearly four years of lengthy trials, the court passed capital punishment on 152 perpetrators for their involvement in the BDR Pilkhana massacre, when the nation lost 74 people, including 57 bright Bangladesh Army officers.
Moreover, 161 accused were jailed for life, 256 were jailed for various terms, and 277 persons received acquittals. As it is known, the death penalty remains a valid form of punishment in Bangladesh under its penal code, and there is hardly any constructive and meaningful discussion among the civil society personnel, intellectuals and lawyers about re-evaluating the need for such severe punishment.
Appeal before High Court
One of the main reasons behind this is probably the fact that the majority of people in Bangladesh still believe that harsh punishment are still necessary for establishing the rule of law in the country, especially considering the perpetual impunity enjoyed by the high and mighty.
While there may come a point in time in future when the death penalty in Bangladesh shall be abolished, the realities and circumstances that exist in the country today are very different those from the West, and are not favourable towards a ban on the death penalty.
Having founded “Desh, We’re Concerned,” the only organisation to have campaigned for proper justice of the VDR carnage throughout the years, honesty, I do not have it in me now to call for a moratorium on the death penalty. I want justice for the senseless killing of my father, Col Quadrat Elahi Rahman Shafique, and so many other innocent men and women, and right now I equate justice with the implementation of punishments on the perpetrators through the court—however harsh that punishment may be.
I would like to believe that the roles played by “Desh, We’re Concerned,” including my articles published in national dailies, have perhaps put some pressure on the government to efficiently carry out the trial process. It has taken over four decades to start any meaningful trials of perpetrators of crimes in 1971, when 3 million people lost their lives. It was our failure to successfully prosecute those who were involved at the time, which led to the spreading of the culture of impunity in my country like a deadly virus.
Moving on to November 29, 2015, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam prayed to the High Court to uphold the lower court verdict that sentenced 152 convicts for killing 74 people. The death reference and appeals were likely to be heard in the High Court by the month of May. However, if the capital punishment remains, I reckon that two big guns in the rights arena, namely Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, will start reacting.
Human Rights Watch, in a report in 2012, had mentioned that “the mass trials of nearly 6,000 suspects raise serious fair trial concerns.” Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, in his statements had said that culprits must be brought to justice, but not through “unfair” trial.
Furthermore, “justice has not been served with the verdict which, if carried out, will only result in violation of 152 more people’s human rights,” Amnesty’s deputy Asia-Pacific Director Polly Truscott had stated, upon the lower court’s verdict, in 2013. Such a statement was followed by their bold expression against capital punishment: “The sentences seem designed to satisfy a desire for cruel revenge. The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishment and has not been proven to be a deterrent to crime.”
Some 57 officers who were the protectors of the land and had represented the nation with pride at international fronts, were shot. Then bayoneted, mutilated, and thrown down the manholes. So whose “cruelty” should any human with a heart prefer to consider when it comes to Pilkhana?
The death penalty can be labelled “inhumane” and “degrading” in accordance to bookish definitions, but those countrymen who had lifted the martyred bodies out of the manhole drains weren’t the only ones whose spirits were shattered. Rather, the whole nation, through the media, had experienced what inhumane and degrading actions can be. It is unarmed officers and civilians being at the receiving end of such heinous crimes.
In this case, the argument against the death penalty, which states that it has “not been proven a deterrent to crime” is not something a son who remembers a mutilated face every time he remembers his father, is prepared to hear.
How to define justice
It is high time that Amnesty and Human Rights Watch come up with a proper sketch (since only complaining is not really helping) of how they expect this trial to be carried out for it to be “fair” in nature. And perhaps, care to explain how their scholars define “justice” to my mother, who has not spent a day without tears in her eyes in the past seven years.
Otherwise, it would be wiser for them not to comment further with regards to this issue, since it is quite clear how their defence of human rights seem to be unsatisfactory, in the context of bringing solace to the souls of the martyrs, their families, activists of “Desh, We’re Concerned,” and all concerned citizens who want DAD Syed Tauhidul Islam and his monstrous partners hung to death.
Therefore, as long as it can be shown that the trial process is meeting the standard practice in Bangladesh, in context of criminal trials, the trial must carry on at its own pace.
Moreover, taking into consideration the possibility of a few cases regarding the torture of perpetrators inside the prison during the period of trial, and chances of the innocent being punished (as per rights bodies, international and otherwise) certainly should not invalidate the whole trial process.
Human rights are extremely important. However, if particular Westernised definitions of rights keep us from claiming justice, then the international bodies must accept it with grace that their brand of human rights may not fit everywhere.
Finding the conspirators
Lastly, as to unearthing the mystery behind the killings and finding the men behind the guns, “Desh, We’re Concerned” over the years has demanded for a separate judicial inquiry commission. The commission would be headed by a retired Supreme Court justice and would conduct investigations and eventually provide a public report.
Therefore, simply punishments given to the perpetrators and the execution of the 152 jawans shall not be enough. Justice will only be served when the conspirators are found and brought to the courts of law.
Saquib Rahman teaches law at North South University