THE BLOOD STILL FLOWS
The two South Asian nations apparently pursue a policy of peace – but Bangladesh ends up prosecuting individuals with Pakistan connections for crimes alleged to have been committed forty years ago.
It is a burlesque, a mockery and a crass travesty of justice as a bunch of kangaroo judges preside over courts which are given the august title of “international war crimes tribunals” and dispense kangaroo justice in Bangladesh. These tribunals were set up in 2010 by Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, with judges handpicked for their loyalty. They have been awarding death sentences to top leaders of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) with total abandon. Simultaneously, the ruling party sponsors a pressure group - naba jagaran mancha (new awakening platform) which organizes protests against their ‘lenient’ sentences and celebrates death sentences handed out by them.
The tribunals have tried more than 10 people, all of whom were top office- bearers of the JI, except Salahuddin Qader Chowdhry and Abdul Aleem, who belonged to the BNP. They included the incumbent chief of the JI as well its Secretary and assistant secretaries general. Some of them, including Chowdhury, were ministers in the BNP government.
In all cases but two, the tribunals returned the death sentence. The exceptions were Prof. Ghulam Azam, 92, who was awarded 90 years, and Abdul Aleem who was awarded life imprisonment. Dilawar Hussain Sayeedee’s death sentence was commuted to life on appeal. As for, Golam Azam, Aleem and AKM Yusuf, they died in prison.
Two defendants who escaped the noose were Abul Kalam Azad Bachchu and Chowdhry Moeenuddin, because, they were living abroad. They were sentenced to death in absentia.
The appeal of Matiur Rahman Nizami against his death sentence is pending before the BD Supreme Court. The rest, Abdul Qader Mulla, Kamruzzaman and Qasim Ali have, all been hanged.
According to Human Rights Watch, “The accused in all these cases were allowed a minuscule fraction of witnesses, counsel were regularly harassed and persecuted, defence witnesses faced physical threats and witnesses were denied visas to enter the country to testify.”
One report says Abdul Qader Mollah was hanged following hastily enacted retrospective legislation prohibited by international law. Another accused, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, was convicted despite credible allegations of the abduction
by government forces, of a key defence witness from the grounds of the court with the ICT refusing to order an independent investigation into the charge. Mohammed Kamaruzzaman was hanged even though witnesses and documents were arbitrarily limited by the courts.”
But it was the execution of Ali Ahsan Mujahid and Salahuddin Qader Chowdhury on November 22 that evoked strong reaction from various corners, including the UN and Human Rights Watch.
"We have long warned that, given the doubts that have been raised about the fairness of trials conducted before the Tribunal, Bangladesh should not implement death penalty sentences," the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement in Geneva.
"The trials did not meet international standards of fair trial and due process as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party," it added.
Two days before their hanging, the U.S. State Department said the executions of Mujahid and Chowdhury should not take place until it was clear that the trial processes had met international standards. Yet, the Bangladesh government went ahead with the act.
Stephen Rapp, the former US ambassador for war crimes, who has long advised the Bangladesh government to make changes in the law to ensure fair trials, referring to the trial of Mujahid and Chowdhury, said:
“Throughout my engagement, I urged that the judicial proceedings of the International Crimes Tribunal respect the highest legal standards. It saddens me to say that I do not believe that was done in the cases of Salauddin Qader Chowdhury and Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid. Under the provisions of international law that Bangladesh has bound itself to uphold, the imposition of sentences of death in these cases is not justified.”
Earlier, Amnesty International noted that the trial and appeal processes had suffered from "serious flaws."
"They were brought to the attention of the government by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other independent observers,” said Abbas Faiz, senior South Asia researcher of AI. “The government authorities who had the power to stop the executions had full knowledge of these concerns. Yet, they went ahead with the executions."
Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, said the human rights committee of the United Nations is very clear that if a government wants to carry out a death penalty, it has to ensure that the judicial process has been absolutely fair.
"In the case of the International Crime Tribunal in Bangladesh, unfortunately this hasn't been the case,” Zarifi told the VOA. “We saw witnesses not being allowed to testify, evidence that could exculpate the defendants not being admitted on vague grounds."
Alex Carlile, one of Britain’s top legal experts and a member of the House of Lords said the trials in the cases of Mujahid and Chowdhury fell "far, far short of acceptable standards."
Pointing to the haste in carrying out the executions of the two men, “just three or four hours after their reported presidential clemency petitions had been rejected, Carlile said, “I think the speed at which the executions took place is obscene. It falls way outside any acceptable criminal justice policies. I think the Bangladesh government has lost all respect among lawyers the world over.”
The trials of Chowdhury and Mujahid reveal the kangaroo nature of the courts at its worst. In Chowdhury’s case, the court refused to accept any evidence from his alibi witnesses while still demanding that Chowdhury prove that his alibi was valid beyond a reasonable doubt. Human Rights Watch pointed out that the court allowed the prosecution to call 41 witnesses, but limited the defence to four witnesses only.
The authorities seemed so dead bent on sending this BNP leader to the gallows that before the hearing of his review petition they ordered international airlines flying into Dhaka to declare whether any of Chowdhury’s defence witnesses were booked on their flights - the obvious purpose being to deny them entry on arrival.
Mujahid’s lawyers submitted 1500 names of defence witnesses, but the court allowed only three of them. Also, it chose the number arbitrarily instead of identifying the most relevant witnesses. Moreover, shortly before the hearing on Mujahid’s review petition, one of his lawyers had to go into hiding following a police raid on his house and the arrest of another defense counsel in a related case.
Mujahid was sentenced to death for instigating his subordinates to commit abuses, even though no subordinates testified or were identified.
But, that said, the question is, was Pakistan’s reaction called for? Those executed were paying for support to the Pakistan army which is said to have engaged in brutal acts against the common people of former East Pakistan. Given the background of the issue, Pakistan foreign ministry’s statement that the trial of the two men was flawed and “Pakistan is deeply disturbed by the executions,” was like rubbing salt on the wounds of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s reaction was predictable. It summoned Pakistan's high commissioner in Dhaka to hand over to him a protest note. And Bangladesh's junior foreign minister, Mohammed Shahriar Alam, said Pakistan had "no right" to make any comment on internal issues of Bangladesh.
The protest note handed over to the Pakistani envoy said that by openly taking the side of those convicted, Pakistan had once again acknowledged its direct involvement and complicity in the mass crimes committed during the separation.
It further said the comments were nothing less than brazen interference in the internal affairs of Bangladesh, which was unacceptable.
“Pakistan should in no way make biased, borrowed and unfounded comments about the independent judiciary of a sovereign country,” the note stated.
In some quarters, it was even said the executions gave a serious blow to Pakistan-Bangladesh relations. These elements believed the sanest course for Pakistan would have been to officially apologize for the excesses that are said to have been committed by its army in 1971 in order to salve the wounds. And leave the Bangladeshis to their kangaroo courts.
The trials of Chowdhury and Mujahid reveal the kangaroo nature of the courts at its worst.
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