Photo: Mehdi Hasan

More Than 80 Killed in Clashes Over Bangladesh War Crimes Trial

Violent protests have erupted across Bangladesh in response to a verdict delivered by the International Criminal Tribunal for Bangladesh late last week, sentencing Bangladeshi politician Delwar Hossain Sayeedi to death for murder, torture, and rape during the country’s 1971 war of independence.

Sayeedi’s opponents welcomed the verdict; however, at least 80 people have died and hundreds injured since January 21, as Sayeedi’s Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, continues to clash with police over the tribunal’s verdicts.

Jamaat maintains that the tribunal is biased against the party, and called for a two-day nationwide strike on Sunday and Monday, resulting in the deaths of more than 20 people. Troops were deployed in the district of Bogra in northern Bangladesh, where deadly clashes continued.

Sayeedi supporters and Jamaat respond to the tribunal’s decision

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Arrested in 2010, Sayeedi was accused of working with Al-Badr – a local militant group and ally of the West Pakistan army during the 1971 war – in carrying out atrocities, including forcibly converting Hindus to Islam. According to BBC News, his critics maintain that Sayeedi formed a small group to loot and seize the property of Bengali Hindus and those who supported secession from West Pakistan.

Sayeedi has denied all of these allegations. Last Thursday, the tribunal found Sayeedi guilty of 8 out of 20 charges levelled against him. He was charged of murder, rape, torture, and forcibly converting Hindus to Islam. Sayeedi’s lawyers plan to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

Violent protests led by Jamaat protestors have erupted across the country following the court’s decision. While the party was opposed to Bangladeshi independence, it denies that it played a role in the war crimes committed by pro-Pakistani militias. Jamaat is alleged to have been behind the creation of Al-Badr.

One Jamaat supporter told the BCC: “We are really concerned about what’s happening. The government’s tribunal [that gave the death sentence to Delwar Hossain Sayeedi] is totally political [sic] motivated and biased. The Jamaat leaders are totally innocent: they couldn’t prove a single charge against Sayeedi. Jamaat leaders are victims of political revenge. We do not want a kangaroo tribunal. The verdict should be cancelled.”

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Escalating violent protests

While the Jamaat party has denied that its members are responsible for violence, media reports indicate that Jamaat members carried out several attacks, including attacks on Hindu temples and houses. On March 1, Jamaat supporters killed Sahu Mia and Nurunnnat Sapu, both supporters of the current governing party, the Awami League, following vandalism against Jamaat businesses by the League’s supporters. One Bengali was quoted by the BBC News as saying “Jamaat-e-Islami are destroying millions of dollars’ worth of public property and killing and terrorizing religious minorities. Being a Muslim myself, I am ashamed at what they are doing in the name of Islam. They are brainwashing young people to believe it is right to kill – but Islam is all about peace.”

The police have used live ammunition to respond to the protests, which Human Rights Watch believes is the main cause of deaths. Some media reports suggest that supporters of the ruling Awami League party have also engaged in vandalism and violence.

War of independence and the birth of the tribunal

In 1971, Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, sought secession from Pakistan, which pitted the West Pakistani army against East Pakistan. The war erupted after the victory of the East-Pakistan-based Awami League in national elections. The Pakistani government refused to accept election results and began Operation Searchlight. The goal of the operation was to send troops to East Pakistan to arrest Awami League leaders and to put down protests.

According to Human Rights Watch, the estimated number of people killed range from 300,000 to 3 million. Furthermore, the war forced an estimated 10 million East Pakistani civilians to flee to India. East Pakistan gained its independence after India invaded in support of East Pakistan. Following Indian intervention, Al-Badr is accused of murdering more than 200 Bengali intellectuals, doctors, and engineers.

The new government established tribunals to try collaborators: in 1973, the parliament passed the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act “to provide for the detention, prosecution and punishment of persons for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other crimes under international law.” However, due to political divisions, the trails did not take place until 2008.

Bringing those responsible for crimes committed during the 1971 war was crucial to the success of the Awami League’s campaign in the 2008 elections. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League party, has made prosecution of 1971 war crimes a key goal of her government. However, critics have accused the prime minister of using the tribunal as a political weapon against opposition parties.

Criticism against the Tribunal

The tribunal has been subject to criticism in Bangladesh and has also elicited international concern.

In January, the tribunal suffered a set-back when a Skype conversation between one of the tribunal judges, Mohammed Nizamul Huq, and a Brussels-based lawyer, Ahmed Ziauddin, was revealed in the press. The conversation was released a few days before the court was due to deliver a decision on Sayeedi. Sayeedi’s lawyers claim that the conversation demonstrates that the accused could not expect a fair trial as the tribunal judge, Huq, was influenced by Ziauddin. The tribunal rejected the calls for a retrial, but agreed to have the two legal teams make their final submissions again.

According to a report by The Economist, Ahmed Ziahuddin, the Brussels-based lawyer, is the director of the Bangladesh Centre for Genocide Studies in Belgium, which is dedicated to ending “the ingrained culture of impunity” surrounding the war crimes committed in 1971.

Moreover, The Economist’s interview with Ziahuddin reveals a discrepancy between the two men’s description of their interaction. In an interview with The Economist, Ziahuddin stated: “It’s up to judges to decide where they are going to get research support or other support they need. They are quite entitled to do it. The more so when they really don’t have that research backup [in Bangladesh]. [They ask for help] if they feel if there are people more informed about the issue, especially where [international law] is so new in Bangladesh. I’m not really advising him, but if there is a question then I try to respond.”

However, Huq’s statements on the topic contradicts Ziahuddin’s statements. While Huq admitted that he talked to the Brussels-based lawyer, he denied that their conversations influenced his tribunal work: “As judges, we cannot take help from third persons and outsiders,” said Huq who was quoted by The Economist. “A[sic] Supreme Court judge, we do not talk even with our wife regarding the tribunal,” he added.

The tribunal has also received substantial criticism from Human Rights Watch. The organization has criticized the government for passing retroactive laws to override court decisions. “Justice for victims of war crimes and other serious abuses during the 1971 war of liberation is essential,” stated Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a news release. “But a government supposedly guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to overrule court decisions when it doesn’t like them. The Bangladesh government should pause, take a deep breath, and repeal the proposed amendments, which make a mockery of the trial process,” he added.

When the tribunal sentenced Qader Mollah, a leading member of the Jamaat party, to life in prison for murder and rape as crimes against humanity and war crimes on February 5, 2013, government officials, members of the Awami League party, and segments of the public responded with outrage that Mollah was sentenced to death. The government responded by proposing amendments to the tribunal law: the amendment allows the prosecution to appeal the tribunal’s decision and also decreases the time for an appeal. Before this amendment, the prosecution was only allowed to appeal if the accused was acquitted.

Human Rights Watch maintains that this amendment violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): Article 14 of 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.” Bangladesh is a party to the ICCPR and must therefore abide by its rules.

Human Rights Watch also notes that threat of violence has affected the tribunal’s proceedings. The organization states that reliable sources have confirmed that some defence witnesses decided not to appear in court due to fear of reprisals. The organization also notes that judges may be afraid to give any sentence other than the death penalty in other cases.

“Convictions of those responsible for the 1971 atrocities is important for the country, but not at the expense of the principles that make Bangladesh a democracy,” Adams from Human Rights Watch has stated.

The tribunal will continue to face obstacles and criticism as the atrocities committed during the war of 1971 remain an important issue for the public.

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