Wednesday 16th Jan 2019
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War Crime Trials Put Bangladesh on the Path to Annihilation

Cover Story

MOHAMMAD PERVEZ BILGRAMI analyses the political pandemonium followed by the ICT rulings convicting 90-year-old former leader of BJI Ghulam Azam to 90 years in prison and the 65-year-old Secretary General of the party and former minister Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid to death for allegedly masterminding the atrocities during 1971 Bangladeshi War of Independence against Pakistan.

Relentless bloody riots in the wake of politically motivated indictment against the alleged war crime are hurting the social fabric of Bangladesh. Not only Dhaka and other major cities, the civil strife has swelled throughout the interiors of the country; scores are dead, thousands injured. Bangladesh has a long history of civil-political unrest, but the current situation is approaching historic proportions. In the past, unrest led to military coup. This time though, coup is out of question yet political pandemonium threatens Bangladesh’s fledgling democracy.

The Awami League (AL)-led government created the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in 2010, basing it loosely on tribunals like Nuremberg. The government rejected suggestions from the international community of the necessity for transparency, strict adherence to legal precedent and involvement of unbiased outsiders. The government wrote its own rules. Charges were brought against 11 suspects out of an estimated total of 1,600. Ten of them held leadership roles in the opposition party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI); and the last one, Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) MP Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, was a former minister and the most senior leader of the party.

Last week, in continuation of previous judgments, ICT in Bangladesh sentenced the 90-year-old former leader of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami Prof. Ghulam Azam to 90 years in prison and the 65-year-old Secretary General of the party and former minister Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid to death for allegedly masterminding the atrocities during 1971 Bangladeshi War of Independence against Pakistan.

It is pertinent to point out here, that unlike other war crimes courts, the Bangladeshi tribunal is not endorsed by the United Nations. The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group has said its procedures fall short of international standards.

The country is facing demonstrations and counter demonstrations with every verdict of ICT. In Dhaka, the demonstrations comprise two camps: the first one is made up of those seeking immediate execution of people convicted of supposed war crimes related to the 1971 war of independence; the other is made up of those who believe the war crimes tribunals are show trials allowing the government to eliminate leaders of a critical political party that threatens to shift the balance of power in upcoming elections. It is worth mentioning that the same AL forged an electoral understanding with the BJI in 1996 to win the election.

The Tribunal judges are all members in good standing of the Awami League; their loyalty to that party has been proven by the communications intercepted between the-then chief Judge of ICT, Mohammed Nizamul Huq and an Awami League legal advisor Ahmed Ziauddin, based in Belgium. The conversation indicated direct instructions from the cabinet for quick convictions and death sentences. After the leaked communication was published in a local daily, Huq resigned from the tribunal and he was replaced with another government loyalist, and the trial continued as if nothing had happened.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the e-mails and Skype calls showed that Ziauddin was playing an important part in the proceedings, although he had no legal standing. The WSJ also said that the communications suggested that the Bangladeshi government was trying to secure a quick verdict, as Huq referred to pressure from a government official.

A Wikileaks leaked cable in November 2010 from the US State Department said, “There is little doubt that hard-line elements within the ruling party (AL) believe that the time is right to crush Jamaat and other Islamic parties”.

Toby M. Cadman and John Cammegh, the two senior British lawyers of international repute who have prosecuted in several war crime tribunals were retained to help local defence team, were not allowed to proceed with their legal duties and expelled from Bangladesh for complaining about the lack of due process. In Cammegh’s own words, “To punish the crimes of 1971 using a dubious and highly politicized legal process, apparently intended to result in the execution of some of the government’s political foes, does nothing for the cause of justice or for the future of Bangladesh”.

In January 2013, Brad Adams of HRW noted concern about Shukho Ranjan Bali, who had first appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the Delwar Hossain Sayeedi case. The defence said he was due to give additional evidence in their favour on 5 November 2012. That day Bali was stopped before entering the courthouse by several police officers; witnesses said he was taken away in a white police van, and his family has not heard from him since. HRW criticised the Bangladeshi government for not working to find him and for its lack of adequate response to allegations criticising the tribunal.

Many pro-AL protesters apparently fear that if their party loses the next election, and that seems inevitable after AL’s crushing defeat in recently held local body elections, the defendants who are sentenced to life in jail might be pardoned by the new government. This apprehension reveals just how political these trials really are. If the trials were legitimate, the overwhelming majority of the public would insist that the men who had been found guilty stay in jail, no matter who the Prime Minister was.

The upcoming elections – to be held on or before January 2014 – will exacerbate these tensions. In the past, a nonpartisan caretaker government has operated during elections. Its presence has ensured consistent and peaceful governance, but the ruling Awami League eliminated the requirement for a caretaker government in 2011. The opposition BNP-led alliance vociferously opposed this elimination of the requirement.

In the history of Bangladesh, elected governments have rotated between the coalitions led by AL and BNP respectively. Historically, each time BNP held power, its majority relied on a Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) coalition seat. Without its votes, the BNP is unlikely to regain power.

It remains to be seen what lies ahead in the New Year for Bangladesh, whether it will observe a smooth political transition or brinkmanship will submerge this South Asian nation of 160 million.



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