Cricinfo has reported on Bangladeshi cricketers attending protests calling for the death penalty for convicted war criminals from the 1971 war of independance from Pakistan. The issue has been presented in a relatively simplistic fashion, essentially the story revolves around the attendance of top cricketers and does not examine in depth the relationships between the various protestors, organisations and political structures within Bangladesh. In presenting this issue as simply one of cricketers showing solidarity with a group of protestors, the wider picture has been obscured.
The spark of this issue is the role played by figures in the Jamaat-e-islami party in the 1971 War of Independence, specifically Abdul Kader Mollah, an Islamic leader. Jamaat was against independence, and during the war members of the organisation committed war crimes. Justice for those crimes was not done in the aftermath of the war, in fact, Mollah went on to hold a high rank in a former Bangladeshi government, led by Khaleda Zia. Mollah has been sentenced to life for war crimes, the protestors are calling for a death sentence.
By joining these protests, the Bangladeshi cricketers are endorsing not only the call for the death sentence, but also the current regime. The government is currently led by the Awami League, who have long been political opponents of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party. Zia has denounced the tribunal as a farce, a politically motivated attack designed to weaken her allies. Human rights groups have also raised questions over the fairness of the tribunal. For example, a defence witness disappeared before being able to testify. As well as this, a minister in the Awami government has publicly called for the death penalty to be applied.
Thus it seems clear that the Bangladeshi cricketers have aligned themselves with a ruling party, rather than with the state itself. The Awami League have positioned themselves as being the defenders of independence from Pakistan, with the current PM of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina accusing Zia of backing those who fought against independence. The links between the Bangladesh Cricket Board and the Awami League are well documented. Nazmul Hasan Papon, President of the BCB, is an MP from the Awami League, and the son of the current President Zillur Rahman.
Many of the comments on the Cricinfo article follow a similar theme, the players are Bangladeshis first, and cricketers second, and as such should have every right to participate in these protests. They do, of course, nobody should be denied the opportunity to participate in politics. However, by attending they have clearly aligned themselves with a regime with a questionable human rights record. Amnesty International has accused the Awami government of murdering and abducting political opponents, as well as harassing journalists.
It should not be in the interests of Bangladeshi cricket to take sides in what appears to be a battle for political power within the country. By doing so, they may taint their reputations, and further the divisions within Bangladesh. They may hold political opinions of their own, but to express them in this manner exposes them in future to charges that they were complicit in potential crimes committed by the Awami regime. It would have been far wiser for them to remain above the fray, and to preserve cricket as a unifying force within a divided nation.