On March 22, 2012, the Government formed a new three-member ICT-2 with Justice ATM Fazle Kabir as its chairman to speed up trials of suspects in cases of crimes against humanity. Presently, eight war crime suspects, having a high-profile, have been detained, and have been charged with crimes against humanity since Bangladesh constituted the tribunal. Six top Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leaders and two Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders face charges of committing crimes against humanity, including genocide, murder, rape and arson, during the country's 1971 Liberation War.
The accused persons include former Jamaat chief Ghulam Azam, the party's present chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, Nayeb-e-Ameer Delawar Hossain Sayedee, other party leaders like Kamaruzzaman and Qader Mollah and BNP leaders Salauddin Quader Chowdhury and Abdul Aleem.
In a landmark decision, on May 13, 2012, the first war crimes tribunal (ICT-1) of Bangladesh indicted JeI former chief Ghulam Azam on 61 charges for incitement, conspiracy, planning, abetment and failure to prevent crimes against humanity during the nation's War of Independence. When asked to plead, the former Jamaat chief said there were numerous charges mentioned "It is not possible to respond to all of them in a short time. But I do not consider myself guilty of the charges." Mr Azam denies the charges, arguing that they are politically motivated. He is the most high profile Islamist leader to have been charged by the tribunal since it was set up in 2010.
On June 11, 2012, ICT-2 indicted former minister Abdul Alim of BNP on 17 counts of crimes against humanity. Abdul Alim, the three-time BNP lawmaker and former minister, was the seventh detained war crime suspect who was indicted since the war crimes trial process was initiated two years ago while fellow suspect and Jamaat-e-Islami secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed now awaited the indictment by the tribunal.
Obstructions to the Proceedings
The nearly two year-long trial of eight suspects at the ICT in Bangladesh, who have been accused of war crimes during the 1971 war is attracting huge international attention and further polarising the country's politics. In its efforts to weaken the BNP-led opposition parties' agitation programs to realise their demands, including the crucial one relating to a restoration of the caretaker government system, the government and the ruling AL almost always keep portraying the agitation as an attempt to stop trial of the war criminals.
The BNP too keeps questioning the fairness of the trial process in a gesture of sympathy to its key ally JeI, whose top leaders have been detained and are facing war crimes charges. The fast developing political environment centering on the trial of war criminals moreover appears as another major threat to the successful completion of the trial. The way the ruling Awami League and the BNP have been taking positions on the war crimes trial issue in their partisan interests has led to many political analysts fearing that the situation may deteriorate in the coming days.
Adding to the problem, on May 17, 2012, a daylong general strike across Bangladesh forced the International Crimes Tribunals in Dhaka to defer the trial of the 1971 war criminals. The shutdown was enforced by main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its 18-party alliance. Police could not comply with the ICTs’ earlier orders to produce the accused persons in the docks due to `risk factor’ on the roads during shutdown hours. Both the two tribunals sat after delaying for some time, but the respective counsel for the accused did not appear before the tribunals.
However, the prosecution lawyers were present in both the tribunals. ICT-1 chairman Justice M Nizamul Huq re-fixed May 20 for the cross-examination of prosecution witness-1 Dr Anisuzzaman, a professor emeritus of the University of Dhaka, by the defence counsel for detained accused BNP MP Salauddin Quader Chowdhury and of the investigation officer by the defence counsel for detained Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee. Meanwhile, former BNP MP Abdul Alim, appeared before ICT-2 but his designated lawyer failed to show up. As a result, ICT-2 chairman Justice ATM Fazle Kabir deferred to May 20 the matter of Abdul Alim and also of detained accused Jamaat-e-Islami leader M Kamaruzzaman.
Criticism of the System
Despite the overwhelming public opinion in support of the trials, there are some bottlenecks. First of all, the tribunals are almost a domestic set-up and the three judges sitting on the tribunals are from Bangladesh. The United Nations and other international agencies do not have any major role to play. Human rights groups said some of the rules were not consistent with international standards, as followed by war crimes tribunals in Rwanda or Cambodia. On May 19, 2011 New York based NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has written a letter to Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, to bring additional amendments to the International Crimes (Tribunals) to ensure that Bangladesh meets its international human rights obligations for trial of WCs. Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW said in the letter "If the government and tribunal iron out some of the problems with meeting international standards, this effort will deserve the full support of the international community."
Two years on, hope for a successful completion of the trial is up against some uncertainty owing to various reasons. Trial of any of the single cases has neither been completed nor reached a stage near to disposal till date. Weakness in investigation and prosecution has been blamed for the unwarranted slow pace in the trial process. Both the panels were on several occasions rebuked by the ICT for various reasons, including their failure to properly discharge their functions. In spite of such facts, the government unfortunately still remains indifferent to the growing demand for taking necessary measures to strengthen the investigation and prosecution panels by injecting new blood into the two bodies.
Most leading experts in the world have also questioned the validity of the ICT in Bangladesh. Experts and individuals who have been through the Bangladesh war of independence and been active in politics have differing views on the trial. However, the government vehemently argued that it had enough legal expertise and manpower to conduct the trial. It promised that there would not be any political interference or revenge. Despite the debate over whether or not the tribunal meets international standards, there is broad agreement in the country that the trial is long overdue and the consequences are likely to be severe if it doesn't go ahead.
(About the Contributor: S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management)