A Black Day in History – Comment on ‘Tales of lone survivor’ Dhaka Tribune

“Now 70, Delwar…broke into tears several times and trembled recollecting the horror of the night. There was a pin-drop silence in the courtroom when Delwar was telling his experience of the mass killing.”

via Tales of lone survivor | Dhaka Tribune.

 Warning: The link above contains a graphic eyewitness account of this tragic night in Bangladesh‘s history.

It is difficult for Westerners to appreciate the pain Bangladesh continues to live through as a result of 1971. The War of Independence which saw the birth of this nation, also saw great loss of life and terrible atrocities which is, in part, the reason for the current War Crime Trials making the news in Bangladesh and abroad.

Of course, the politics behind these trials are dubious but then when has that not been in the case? The international media sees trials mired in corruption and young Bangladeshis braying for blood demanding executions in an international world which no longer has the taste for such punishment. The overall impression I get from the international media, is one of disapproval and distaste at such ‘barbaric’ behaviour.

It is not difficult to see the hypocrisy here.

32 of 50 American states retain and continue to use the death penalty to this day. 32 people have been executed this year alone.

Even though William Joyce was the last person to be executed for High treason in the UK in 1946, Britain only abolished its wartime and peacetime capital punishment laws in 2000 and 1998 respectively though effectively other laws superseded them in 1972. Belarus still has the laws in place although it is the only European country left to do so. Many European countries only abolished the laws in the 1990s and 2000s.

But the period of time in Europe most closely related to Bangladesh’s war was, of course, the Second World War. Then, no one seemed to find issue with capital punishment. By my count, 210 Nazis were sentenced to death for their part in World War II. Many sentences were commuted but then other Nazis committed suicide before they could be tried and countless others were, allegedly, murdered by the military – especially in Russia – before they could stand trial.


Not WWII but a picture from Bangladesh 1971 (source: http://www.bangladesh-i.com)

It is interesting to see how many sentenced to death then had their sentences commuted to life and those were then often shortened to, say, ten years imprisonment – this is exactly the fear the youth have for the current war crime trials. People expect that if the opposition party come to power after the forthcoming elections, all those convicted and sentenced to death or life imprisonment will be released.

The aim of all this preamble is to say the international community is pointing the finger at Bangladesh but has forgotten its own recent past. This article from the Dhaka Tribune (written by my good friend Muktasree Chakma Sathi) serves to remind just a little of why the Bangladeshi public continue to feel so outraged about the war criminals who have never been tried before in the county’s forty-year existence.

December 14th 1971 was a black night in history when the Pak army – knowing they had lost the war after India’s intervention – rounded up as many of Bangladesh’s intellectuals as they could and murdered them en masse. Delwar’s testimony, recounted here, gives just an inkling of what transpired that night.

This commentary on Sathi’s article is not an approval of the death penalty but nor is it disapproval. I hope, instead, it helps explain just a little bit of the injustice and pain still acutely felt here. It isn’t hard, after reading the Dhaka Tribune piece, to see just why so many feel the need for blood to be shed and those of us who live in peaceful times built on the blood shed by our own should remember we felt that same need for justice not that long ago. While these atrocities took place in Bangladesh, it was another sixteen years before Europe finally appeased the need for blood, executing arguably the last Nazi war criminal – Feodor Fedorenko – in Russia, July 1987.


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8 Responses to A Black Day in History – Comment on ‘Tales of lone survivor’ Dhaka Tribune

  1. Thank you very much Ken for the article, and of course, for your understanding.

    The death penalty debate, which basically is centred on the conflict between two engrained but distinct sets of morality across cultures, is yet to see any universal consensus. Whether or not we like it for the war criminals of 1971, the facts remain:

    a) ‘Death penalty’ happens to be the highest punishment in Bangladesh, and it will continue to be so until replaced by something else through a total overhaul of the criminal justice system. All courts and tribunals in Bangladesh are bound to apply the law that exists, not the law that it wishes to be;

    b) War criminals deserve highest punishment;

    c) People of Bangladesh, particularly the victims, think that war criminals deserve the highest punishment. At the end of the day, laws derive their legitimacy from the people, the true source of any state power.

    Here is something I wrote a while back on the same topic which may interest you:


    • Thanks for your comment. You’re quite correct to refer to the two deeply ingrained sets of morality around which the conflict centres. Much of my Masters degree has looked at just this, in fact. I wonder whether any universal consensus will ever be possible…

      My post, of course, refrains from giving any opinion about the rights or wrongs of the death penalty but it is interesting to note that Bangladesh law was adapted from British law pre-1947 and little progress seems to have taken place since then. I recently went to court myself to act as a witness and was stunned by the whole process. Whereas British law itself has moved on (there is no death penalty now, for instance) I wonder when – or if – the Bangladeshi justice system will ever receive the ‘total overhaul’ to which you referred.


      • As part of its colonial legal heritage, many of our laws are pre-partition, some more than hundred years old. The situation is similar in the whole sub-continent generally. In Bangladesh, for instance, the penal laws and its procedures have been amended here or there, but certainly not to the extent to bring them in line with the modern times. But it must also be noted that despite some inefficiencies in justice administration, there are not many provisions in our law that are grossly outdated. The legal system is a functioning one.

        The moment Bangladesh started trying its dozen war criminals, suddenly the whole world became concerned about our legal system, which is alright I guess. But what I cannot fathom is – most of these international entities were quite happy with Bangladesh’s functioning criminal justice system when hundreds and thousands of cases were dealt with every year involving numerous defendants and witnesses. I assume they were ‘quite happy’ because none of them ever complained!


        • I think wherever the death penalty is awarded, the international media immediately wades in – if for no other reason that that groups like Amnesty International bring it to the world’s attention. I agree with your comments though. Thanks for adding your thoughts!


  2. Thanks a lot for writing this. I deeply appreciate your empathy and withholding judgment.

    A large part of Bangladesh’s population was born after 1971 and never really experienced the terror. Sometimes, my mom will recount a random story: the Pakistani military contingent was making rounds and came around to her house. All males – her father, 11-year old brother, a cousin, caretaker and guard – were lined up. The commander reiterated to troops that if a single bullet was wasted, there’d be consequences. They didn’t ask about religion, affiliation or politics. My grandfather and the lot were finally ushered out into the curfew in hopes that some other patrol would kill them (their ammunition was low). Many other family-members weren’t as lucky.

    These are the stories that we’ve grown up with, along with textbook war history. I think in every Bangladeshi, resides a deep sense of being wronged. I mean, wars are understandable. But who can fathom the nature or motive of indiscriminate massacres? And this resentment reaches it peak when it comes to our own people who betrayed families, neighbors and countrymen – to actively support the killing.

    Personally, I think some people deserve to die. And I see many countries that claim to oppose the death penalty resorting to extra-judicial killings or drone / precision strikes to take care of their dirty business. I root for due process. But the ugly truth is that we, humans, are capable of plenty that warrants death.


    • Thanks for sharing these personal stories from your family Adnan. I take your point about the hypocrisy of some countries when it comes to killing and I certainly agree your final statement. The question in such cases is: Do we mete out justice or show mercy? That’s the question facing the Bangladeshi people today, I think.


  3. Ruby Tuesday says:

    When you have the chance, you should watch the movie Judgement At Nuremberg. It is the best “dramatization” and retelling of the circumstances surrounding the prosecution of Nazi war criminals that I know of, and does an excellent job not just of capturing many of the horrors of that war (fair warning, their is actual footage from the concentration camps and it is no easy watch); but also of depicting in a way the viewer cannot fail to understand the various forces at work behind the scenes, and why there was no obvious and “easy” verdict. The point is that it speaks on a lot of issues I think the article you shared and your post speak about here — ultimately leading back to there being no simple, clear-cut, “easy” answer to what happened in Bangladesh. There are too many forces at play, and too many opposing viewpoints, and ultimately, too much politicking.

    I’m not claiming to have any kind of answer (nor all but the most superficial of understanding), but there is a very fine path for officials to tread in making a statement about what happened without begetting more violence.


    • Very true, Ruby. I think I’ve seen parts of that film but not all. I’ll have to look it up again. I think we have to understand that we must not be quick to condemn the way others do things without making sure we know where they have come from and truly understand where we ourselves came from. Right now, Bangladesh needs this from the international forum.


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