DHAKA, Bangladesh — Jalladkhana, the “butcher’s den,” sits on the dusty outskirts of the Bangladeshi capital, a small building filled with candles and the peals of a small brass bell.
The disused pumping station gained its grisly nickname four decades ago, during the country’s bloody war of independence from Pakistan. At that time, Pakistani soldiers and their local proxies turned the facility into a slaughterhouse, butchering thousands of civilians and dumping their bodies into its deep underground cistern.
“They killed people during the day and dumped them during the night,” said K.M. Nasiruddin, the caretaker of the memorial that now occupies the site.
As many as 25,000 people lost their lives at Jalladkhana during the 1971 war, Nasiruddin said, but many of the remains were scattered, buried in nearby mass graves or washed away through the city’s drains.
As a teenager, Sharikul Islam came close to joining this grim harvest.
In July 1971, Islam—part of the country’s Bengali-speaking majority—was seized near his home by a group of menacing young men who accused him of supporting independence. By that time, most of the local Bengali community had already fled, and the empty neighborhood was under the control of similar bands of Pakistan-backed thugs.
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Islam’s assailants were young migrants from Bihar in India, local teenagers had been whipped up into a bloodthirsty frenzy by the Pakistani authorities, who told them their minority would suffer under Bengali rule.
“I knew them very well,” Islam recalled of the men. “They told me ‘you are a Bengali, you want an independent Bangladesh, so we don’t know you.'” The teenagers beat him up and dragged him to the pumping station, where he saw blood and discarded clothing strewn across the floor.
They had already made a shallow cut across his throat when two of his Bihari friends interrupted the attack and allowed him to escape to safety. “It was God’s will that he couldn’t perform the cutting operation,” Islam, now 56, said of his assailant.
Few countries have been born under as bloody a star as Bangladesh. The bloodshed began on March 25, 1971, when the Pakistani army launched a brutal crackdown on the nascent Bangladeshi independence movement, a campaign that New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg described as “a pogrom on a vast scale.”
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In the nine-month orgy of violence that followed, Pakistani soldiers and bands of local collaborators roamed the country at will, killing Hindus and those suspected of pro-independence sympathies. According to the government, up to 3 million people were killed during the conflict, and hundreds of thousands of women were raped.
On Nov. 21, after four full decades, a special war-crimes tribunal in Dhaka is set to open the country’s first trial linked to the bloodshed of 1971.
Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a leading figure in the Jemaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party, will be the first in the dock, facing a raft of charges including genocide, murder, arson and crimes against humanity.
Prosecutors claim Sayedee was the regional chief of a militia set up during the war to collaborate with the Pakistani army. If found guilty, he faces death by hanging. Four more members of the Jemaat and two leaders from the opposition Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) are also in detention awaiting trial for their alleged roles in the bloodshed.
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The International Crimes Tribunal, as the tribunal is officially termed, comes following decades of inaction in Bangladesh. Previous attempts at trying key figures have been stymied by the country’s chronic political infighting and a series of military administrations that feared trials might implicate many within their own ranks.
Only the election in late 2008 of the Awami League — led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of independence icon Sheikh Muijibur Rahman — gave fresh impetus to the drive for justice. “The current process is, if you like, unfinished business that started in 1972,” said Ahmed Ziauddin, an advisor to local rights group Odhikar.
During his visit to Dhaka this week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the trials as “essential” for Bangladesh. But the tribunal — a purely domestic contrivance with no UN involvement — has its critics.
Human Rights Watch and other international observers say the tribunal's legal provisions fall far short of international standards, while most of the key perpetrators are either deceased or living safely abroad in Pakistan, the UK and other Western countries. (One key figure reportedly resides in Manhattan.)
“This is a fragmented trial. We are not being able to touch the tip of the iceberg even, because 95 percent of the crimes were committed by the Pakistani army,” said M.A. Hassan, head of the War Crimes Fact-Finding Committee, a group that submitted a list of 1,700 key figures to the government in 2008.
Hassan, a medical doctor who funded and directed the Committee’s 10-year documentation project, said that even though the accused had likely committed crimes — all seven were on the committee’s 2008 list — it was important to ensure the legal procedures were up to snuff. “You must prove that [the accused] were members of the Pakistani army, and they did their atrocities … during the time of war and did it as a plan of war in a very systematic way,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sayedee and his party, which governed in coalition with the BNP between 2001 and 2006, have dismissed the tribunal as a “kangaroo court” designed to settle old political scores.
“It is more than clear that this is only a vindictive political harassment,” said Shafiqur Rahman, Jemaat’s assistant secretary general. “It is quite an illegal trial. It has got no legitimacy at all.”
Rahman said the party had indeed supported the unity of Pakistan during the 1971 war, but that it had never advocated violence. “Our stance was only political, nothing militant,” he said.
After such a long delay, however, public sentiment is firmly stacked against the defendants, and all the victims’ relatives who spoke with GlobalPost said the prospect of some form of justice — however flawed — was better than none at all.
“I just want justice... I have lost everything, and I don’t have anyone left,” said Momena Begum, 52, whose parents and three young siblings were shot by a local militia at the height of the bloodshed.
58-year-old Mohammad Bashiruddin Mollah lost his father and brother during the war, and said he wanted to see “tough justice” for the accused.
Islam, the Jalladkhana survivor, also expressed strong support for the trial process. “The martyrs could sleep well in their graves if the war criminals are tried and if we could have justice,” he said. “We want nothing else.”