by Rahat Aziz
Political violence erupted in Bangladesh ahead of next general election. The most appealing question in the context of the current political situation in Bangladesh is war crime tribunal and dialogue between two major political parties. The country’s achievements are now gravely threatened by politics, specifically the determination of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League government to persecute her opponents – to have them hanged, in fact – with the help of a war-crimes tribunal (a domestic court, despite its name) that has lost all credibility. The general election is due within few months and the current administration seems to be worried about its prospects of winning. Most independent observers believe that the Awami League government wants to eliminate the opposition coalition through this trial. John Kerry, US secretary of state, and Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, have both urged the two women to ensure a peaceful election by resolving a dispute over what happens when the current parliament’s term expires this month; the BNP, which is expected to win a free election, wants a non-party caretaker government to take over, but Sheikh Hasina insists on staying at the helm.
Some people question the need for a public reckoning, however late, given the slaughter committed by Pakistani troops and their allies in their war to keep Pakistan united 42 years ago. What is unacceptable to international jurists and Bangladeshi moderates is the blatant politicisation of the tribunal established by the current government, which prompted one British lawyer hired by JI to talk of a “political show trial” after a death sentence of JI leader Abdul Quader Mollah.
The ICT was established to hold accountable those responsible for grave violations of international law during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. Most of the accused in the war crimes cases are longstanding senior leaders of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islaami party. On January 21, 2013, the ICT handed down its first judgment, against Abu Kalam Azad. He was tried in absentia, found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to hang.
In the second verdict, announced on February 5, the ICT Abdul Kader Mollah, a leading member of Jamaat, on five out of six counts, including of murder and rape as crimes against humanity and war crimes, and sentenced him to life in prison. He was acquitted on one count of murder. Government officials, members of the ruling Awami League party, and segments of the public reacted with outrage that Abdul Kader Mollah was not sentenced to death. Crowds consisting of a certain group of people assembled in the Shahbag area of Dhaka demanding the death penalty. People of all sectors later understood that how government was acting behind the movement in Shahbagh area.
However, the government responded by proposing amendments to the ICT law, allowing the prosecution to appeal the sentence, and decreasing the time for an appeal to be completed. On February 14, the draft amendment was offered in parliament and approved soon. Until this verdict, the prosecution was only allowed to appeal if the accused was acquitted, and 90 days were allowed for appeals. The amendments violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a state party. Article 14 of the ICCPR states that “no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.”
The government’s effort to get verdicts fast has been evidenced in Skype conversations between the chief judge of the tribunal, who later resigned, and a lawyer of Bangladeshi origin in Europe. The earlier verdict on Delwar Hossain Sayeedi sparked serious violence throughout the country and the government had to deploy the army to control the situation. The Economist reported that, “According to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human-rights watchdog, more than 100 people died between February 5th and March 7th in what it called a ‘killing spree’ by law-enforcement agencies on the pretext of controlling the violence.
“At least 67 people were killed after the court delivered its third sentence on February 28th. That was death by hanging for Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, one of the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party, for the murder, abduction, rape, torture and persecution of his countrymen.” It is obvious that these politically-motivated trials will have no legitimacy whatsoever given the way the ICT has been conducting itself so far.
The government also knows very well that it would be impossible to convict these accused had the judiciary been independent and impartial. That is why the government has ignored persistent demands of international legal community to adhere to internationally recognized norms of justice and due process. Unfortunately the mainstream media not only have played the history down, some have misinformed the public. At the latest, the International Crimes Tribunal handed a death sentence to Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a member of parliament from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for torture, rape and genocide during the war that led to independence from Pakistan in 1971.
He was the seventh person sentenced by the court – the others are or were leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist ally of the BNP – and the news was greeted with instant protests by human rights activists convinced that the government is trying to finish the trials in unseemly haste before the general election.
“These tribunals have proved so divisive, and have been so poorly managed, they risk polarising Bangladesh for a generation and poisoning political debate before the elections,” said Lord Carlile, a British Liberal Democrat peer and expert on war crimes and terrorism. He said he had irrefutable evidence that the Chowdhury judgment was either written by the government or submitted by the judges in advance in draft form to the law ministry for vetting. Foreign governments, although preoccupied with the war in Syria and other crises, are so worried about Bangladeshi politics
The Awami League government is now under fire from domestic and foreign critics for some other reasons also. It has detained human rights activists and has threatened to seize businesses connected to Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of microlender Grameen Bank, probably because he was considering a new career in politics. But it is the war crimes process that has attracted the most opprobrium. From among members of the international community Turkey and a number of NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Bar Association have raised voice about the legitimacy and impartiality of this tribunal. The faster that the rest of the international community joins in raising such questions about this tribunal, the better will be international peace and security.