Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi
In a recent press statement published by the British House of Lords, Lord Carlile demanded that the Bangladesh government issue a formal invitation to a delegation of lawyers from the House to watch the trial proceedings of those who are accused of war crimes at the International Crimes Tribunal, Dhaka. This request was made following an oral assurance given to him by Shafique Ahmed, Bangladesh minister of law, justice and parliamentary affairs, when they met in London in September this year.
During the meeting, Lord Carlile told the minister that he had followed the proceedings of the court for some time, and asked whether he could take a group of senior lawyers of all parties from the House of Lords to visit the Tribunal and to have open access to everyone concerned, including the defendants in their place of incarceration. In reply, the minister agreed to this in principle and was very clear about his agreement, albeit orally.
Lord Carlile also recalled that members of the House shared his concern in relation to the proceedings at the Tribunal as part of a larger debate on the human rights situations in Bangladesh in October. During the debate, Lord Avebury, Baroness Uddin and Baroness Brinton expressed their support for urgent assessment of the standards of the Tribunal, highlighting in turn the following:
1. The early 2010 conclusion by the International Bar Association (IBA) that the legislative framework of the Tribunal fell short of recognized international standards and required reform .
2. That the IBA, the US Ambassador for Global Justice Stephen Rapp and others have criticized the Tribunal’s procedures and the evident bias of the chairman of the Tribunal .
3. The request by the Parliamentary Human Rights Group for the IBA to conduct a fresh assessment of the Tribunal, its procedures and practices, seeking the advice from Ambassador Rapp, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and its special procedures mechanisms .
4. The looming threat of the death penalty on conviction of the defendants .
5. The arrest of Mir Quasem Ali, a leading member of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party and the owner and director of newspaper and media group Diganta Media, whose only crime appeared to have been the apparent criticism of the Tribunal set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina .
6. Rather than a retributive approach, the Tribunal should follow the justice and reconciliation examples set in South Africa and Northern Ireland, among others.
During the debate, Lord Carlile expressed his disappointment and concern at the fact that he had been waiting for the minister’s written confirmation for the visit for a considerable time. He called upon Baroness Warsi, in her response to the debate, to confirm that it was the government’s view that such a visit would be timely and provide the potential to properly assess and evaluate proceedings before the Tribunal, and that the Bangladesh government should be encouraged to comply with the oral assurance that they have already given.
In her response, Baroness Warsi stated that although the British government supports the principle of bringing an end to immunity for crimes committed during the war, it is essential that any trial meets appropriate human rights standards, in addition to defendants being given a fair trial (including the right to conduct a proper defense) and that trials should be open and transparent.
She also confirmed that Sheikh Hasina’s government had called on the government of Bangladesh, publicly and privately, to ensure that trials meet appropriate international standards, and that it would continue to do so. She has also given encouragement to the proposal of sending a group of senior lawyers from the House of Lords to the Tribunal. Lord Carlile again expressed his disappointment over the inaction on the part of the Bangladesh government with regard to fulfilling the minister’s promise by sending a formal written confirmation about the visit of lawyers to the Tribunal.
Apart from the interest shown by the House of Lords and the criticism raised by its members against the Tribunal’s act, which is devoid of any international standards, there has been criticism from many other quarters.
These include the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Bar Association, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations and personalities concerned with international human rights.
All these demands are more than enough to reconsider the move to go ahead with trials that are characterized by a political agenda based on the concept of taking revenge on political opponents, settling scores with them and creating a split among members of the Muslim society who have seen prominent icons thrown into prison, dragged into courts and deprived of their most basic human rights.
From my knowledge and close interaction with the Bengali people over a period spanning more than 40 years, I can say emphatically that putting someone like Professor Ghulam Azam, one of the most respectable figures not only in Bangladesh but in the entire Islamic world, into solitary confinement will benefit no one. Even his wife and children have been prevented from visiting the 90-year-old man who is now languishing behind bars.
In similar circumstances is the preacher Delwar Hussein Saidi, who scored a sweeping victory in three parliamentary elections gaining many more votes than his rivals. It is noteworthy that among those who voted for him were a large number of Hindus. Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury is the third leader facing a similar fate. Chowdhury, who hails from a well-known political family, has never lost an election in his life.
Saidi and Chowdhury, who are sitting members of the Bangladesh parliament, were taken to the Tribunal while they were attending a parliamentary session falsely accused of committing war crimes 40 years ago.
This is a form of abuse and revenge because even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who ruled Bangladesh after it separated from Pakistan and whose word was law during that time, did not bring charges of war crimes or collaboration with the Pakistan army against those who are currently languishing behind bars or anyone else. Provisions of the War Crimes Act were restricted to the members of the Pakistan army. Sheikh Mujibur declared a general amnesty and freed more than 100,000 people who were detained under the law against collaboration with the Pakistan army.
He did this when he realized that he could not bring about justice by trying those who opposed secession from Pakistan and at the same time give an amnesty to militia men loyal to his party who had committed crimes against Biharis and others who opposed the formation of Bangladesh. Apart from this, he saw a bright future for his country only by following a policy of “forgive and forget”.
— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com