Pressure is mounting on the Awami League government as the international community continues to criticise the International Crimes Tribunal.
The Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani called upon the Bangladeshi government to stop persecuting Professor Ghulam Azam and other Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, in a letter to Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister.
Open Democracy published an article today on the Bangladeshi Media’s support for the unjust ICT and the policies of the Awami League government.
Amar Desh wrote that the International Criminal Court has agreed to investigate Sheikh Hasina for crimes against humanity, after receiving a submission from UK nationals. Interestingly, this article is now offline, although a cached copy is available on Google.
Cassidy & Co, a “government relations firm” based in Washington, published an article in their blog which stated that “the basis for the creation of the ICT, the International Crimes Act of 1973, is deeply flawed and outdated” and which outlined their fears that if the trial is allowed to continue in its current guise, it will have repercussions for International crimes justice worldwide.
In addition, a number of UK politicians have contacted the Foreign Office and the Bangladeshi High Commission to urge changes to the ICT to ensure justice for those arrested.
The prosecution in the International Crimes Tribunal produced some of their much anticipated video evidence yesterday. However, the video did not show any footage of Ghulam Azam and was simply a montage of wartime footage with news reports from Western sources such as CBS, NBC and ABC News. The prosecution defended the video evidence, saying that they had not included footage of Ghulam Azam himself for “strategic reasons”. However, it provides more credence to the view that such evidence is severely lacking.
See here for more details (Daily Star newspaper report).
In today’s bail hearing at the International Crimes Tribunal, Professor Ghulam Azam’s bail application has been rejected. This is despite the recent UN Working Group for Arbitrary Detention’s criticism of the detention of other Jamaat leaders in similar circumstances. Justice Nizamul Haq rejected the bail plea saying “We do not find new materials in support of the claim that his health is deteriorating”. This is despite the recent reports of his family, who say that he has significantly deteriorated in physical and mental strength in detention.
Further details of the court decision can be found here.
The Bangladesh government, which likes to present itself as a progressive liberal democracy, has voted to pass a law preventing criticism of the International Crimes Tribunal. Arguing that the ICT is being “obstructed” by those who have questioned its intentions, the law aims to silence opposition completely by making it illegal to criticise the trial at all.
This follows the recent contempt case against the New Age BD newspaper which suggested that the trial may be a politically motivated “judicial stamp” to allow the punishment of those that were (alleged to be) involved in war crimes. In addition, the ICT judge and politicians have been quick to criticise an Aljazeera report by Nicolas Haque, which provided a relatively balanced view of the trial and mentioned the UN decision. They described the report as “untrue and baseless”. The reports have since been removed from the Aljazeera website and its Youtube channel, possibly as a result of pressure from the Bangladeshi government.
It is important that more voices are raised in criticism of the so-called “International Crimes Tribunal” as those in Bangladesh will soon be powerless to speak out against its many flaws.
Despite the assurances of the Bangladeshi government, Professor Ghulam Azam is deteriorating rapidly in custody. Although he has not been charged, he has been in virtual solitary confinement, with severely limited access to family or even lawyers. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned the detention of other political leaders in Bangladesh, which has been simply ignored by the Bangladeshi government.
Ghulam Azam’s family, especially his wife Afifa Azam, are very distressed by his increasingly frail appearance. He is also suffering from the effects of mental isolation and the lack of the usual rigid discipline in health and lifestyle that he used to maintain.
Please act now to contact your MP or representative about the conditions faced by Ghulam Azam and his rapidly declining health, as well as concerns that he will not receive a fair trial at the ICT.
The International Crimes Tribunal began hearing the framing of formal charges against former Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami Professor Ghulam Azam on Wednesday, despite a request for an adjournment on the hearing pending. Earlier in the day, a second bail petition was heard for Azam, and the tribunal said that it would make a decision on this matter on February 23.
The tribunal had ruled that the adjournment petition would be heard after lunch, and the court reconvened at 2:15pm. But upon seeing that none of the senior lawyers were present, tribunal chairman Justice Nizamul Huq asked the prosecution to begin with its formal charge against Azam. Justice Nizamul Huq is a controversial figure, whom the International Criminal Law Bureau has labelled a man who “has has a visible and apparent interest and bias in these proceedings”, given his part in writing reports used as evidence for the prosecution.
As the chief prosecutor began, a senior defence counsel, Tajul Islam, pointed out that there was still an adjournment petition pending. However, Justice Huq said that the petition would be duly heard, but in the meantime the prosecution should continue reading out formal charges, which he said would take five to six hours.
At 2.30pm, Azam’s chief counsel, Barrister Abdur Razzaq arrived and expressed his concern that the defence counsels would not have time to prepare, as the defence had not received DVDs of the documents of the case from the prosecution, and the documents received were illegible. He stated, “when we are asking for an adjournment, we are asking for adjournment of the proceedings for both the sides.”
Justice Huq insisted that the adjournment petition would be heard after the prosecution had read out the charges, and the defence were told they would get enough time for preparation, as it would take time to read out the formal charges. Tajul Islam pointed out the farcical nature of proceedings, asking, “What is the point of adjournment if we still have to sit at the court room?”
Another judge, Zaheer Ahmed, intervened and allowed Razzaq to leave the courtoom, saying, “Not the entire defence team really needs to be here when the charges are merely being read out.” The prosecution continued to read out charges until 4pm, and will continue on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, the court heard a bail petition for Azam, in which Razzaq argued that Azam should be granted bail on humanitarian grounds, as the 89-year-old man was suffering from various complications and losing weight. The counsel cited a number of news reports documenting the retired leader’s illness, as well as stating, “He has been kept at the hospital for the last one month and five days. That is obvious proof that the man is ill.”
Azam spoke at the tribunal, saying that “they are gradually killing me before the trial is done” by giving him only very poor quality food. He also said that he is so weak that he needs someone to accompany him to the toilet, so he would like to stay at home with his wife and family in his last days. However, his statement was ignored by the judges, who said that the lawyers should convey any messages on behalf of him.
After hearing the petition, the tribunal said it wanted to address all points made by the counsels of both sides and would give its verdict on Feb 23.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared that the detention of six suspects of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal is arbitrary and has recognised that the Tribunal’s procedures constitute a breach of Article 9 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN had previously remained relatively quiet on this issue, and this represents a significant development amid growing international pressure on the Bangladesh Government to give a fair trial to the opposition figures detained on allegations of war crimes.
In a statement on Tuesday, the UN Working Group said that it “holds that there have been several restrictions on the defendants’ access to legal assistance. In particular, the defence counsels have not been able to attend sessions during which the defendants were interrogated. Nor have they had unimpeded access to the evidence. The Working Group finds that access to information by the defendants and their lawyers has been restricted in such a way that hinders any challgenes of their pretrial detention, contrary to Article 9(2) and 9(4) ICCPR and general principles of law.”
The UN Working Group also criticised the government of Bangladesh for not justifying the refusal to release the defendants on bail, “particularly considering that all the underlying conditions were fulfilled.”
It concluded that “The Working Group considers that holding individuals in pretrial detention in the absence of any reasoned and adequate explanation is unnecessary and disproportional to the aim sought.”
International criminal lawyer Toby Cadman welcomed the UN Working Group’s opinion in a statement:
“The UN Working Group, an independent and impartial body beyond reproach, has issued a clear statement that the Tribunal is operating well below international standards and in clear breach of its treaty obligations as a State Party to the ICCPR.
“This convincingly demonstrates that the repeated derogatory remarks that opposition to the Tribunal is part of a conspiracy has no foundation.”
The arrest of Professor Ghulam Azam: a grandchild’s account
The arrest of a leading opposition figure in Bangladesh is a stark reminder that without due legal process, examining the wrongs of the past can quickly become an opportunity for political leverage in the present. A version of this article first appeared on Opendemocracy.net.
My earliest memories of my grandfather is of him walking in a simple white vest and lunghi (a traditional Bangladeshi clothing) tending to the garden he cherished that surrounded his modest tin-roofed home in Dhaka. A lover of nature and a simple and deeply spiritual man with no desire for the financial eminence many seek, humility and simplicity was his nature. It was always astounding to his visitors who expected opulence of such a leading national figure. Along with this was a gentleness and generosity that made each of his numerous grandchildren feel uniquely beloved and special.
On January 11, I watched aghast as my 89 year old grandfather, Professor Ghulam Azam, was taken away by the authorities to prison. He was arrested on 62 trumped up charges of war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh independence war, including the quite ludicrous charge of responsibility, “for all atrocities committed across the country between March 25, 1971, and December 16, 1971”.
During the war my grandfather was the political leader of what was simultaneously the largest religious group in the then East Pakistan, but a small political party with little clout in the wider political arena at the time. He supported the unity of East and West Pakistan, however he remained absolutely opposed to the military aggression on the ground, including the crimes committed by both military and paramilitary forces, and worked tirelessly to help aid those caught in the cross-fire. Nevertheless, despite his desperate attempts at reconciliation at the time, he was made a scapegoat for crimes committed by both the Pakistani military and paramilitary forces. A deeply patriotic man and a leading activist for the nation’s historic Bengali Language Movement, he has been the victim of a sustained and virulent media smear campaign that has demonised his character, leading many, including those born after the war, to misjudge a man they have never met.
Now, the party my grandfather built is one of the leading opposition groups in Bangladesh and allied with another major opposition group represents a genuine political threat to the ruling Awami League led regime. The ruling party is conducting a crippling political witch hunt of the opposition in the name of seeking justice for victims of war crimes. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) bears no signs of the international standards it lays claim to. Senior political figures condemn those who merely support the accused as worthy of arrest and the chairman of the ICT himself has considerable bias in the case, in the 90’s having been a member of an illegal ‘Public Enquiry Commission’ that was conducted outside any legal framework and that found my grandfather guilty. In addition, while leading members of the opposition party have been arrested and endured almost two years of pre-trial detention and torture without charge, pro-liberation fighters, many of whom are part of the ruling party, are exempt from any charge or trial. Thus war crimes committed by the latter, such as those against the Bihari communities, face blatant disregard. Many, from journalists to international lawyers, have strongly critiqued the glaring legal flaws in the tribunal, including its flawed procedure and apparent desire to enact revenge rather than justice. Even the United Nations condemned the arrests of suspects as arbitrary and in contravention of human rights.
Before an international court, such as The Hague, that is observant of due process and guarantees fair treatment, our family would have no qualms about the case. Indeed, we are in no way opposed to the holding of a tribunal; our only demand is that it be impartial and fair. However, any attempt to address these issues is sharply and passionately denounced as a conspiracy to undermine the tribunal.
This is reflective of a wider shift in Bangladesh. Freedom of speech is regularly curtailed, a fact even the staunchest supporters of the government cannot deny: any critic of the tribunal or government is swiftly punished. Charges of sedition over the expression of political views betray a telling rise of censorship in the country. In its desperation to keep afloat a tribunal which any legal scrutiny would swiftly sink, the ire of the government does not even spare senior foreigners critical of the system: Toby Cadman, a British barrister with expertise in international human rights and war crimes, was refused entry to the country and vilified for his constructively critical comments.
At a hearing on January 9, my grandfather’s barrister was informed that he must present his client in court on January 11 or my grandfather would face arrest. However, upon appearing in court he was arrested regardless. In spite of showing no signs of departure or avoidance throughout the smear campaign that has gained momentum over the past two years, it would appear the authorities still deemed an 89 year old man incapable of walking without support to be a flight risk. Bail was sought due to his old age and poor health: though granted at first it was swiftly revoked. Pro-regime news outlets across the country went wild spewing unverified polemic: judgement was passed in the media even before he could be judged before a court.
The leftists in the ruling party are a particularly emphatic force in the campaign against my grandfather. As a student activist in Britain, for years I worked with western socialists who proved the backbone for international movements for human rights and justice. However, the Bangladeshi left demanding the hangman’s noose rather than a fair trial as the just resolution to wartime suffering, leaves me bewildered at the brand of socialism these individuals practice.
The government’s apparent desire for justice over the events of the 1971 war becomes particularly questionable when reflecting on the many serious cases of violent criminality the country has suffered recently that remain tellingly disregarded. A simple and glaring example lies in the 2009 siege at the Headquarters of the border security force, Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). Scores of leading army officers were brutally killed, their wives raped and murdered. Like the infamous murder of the intelligentsia at the close of the 1971 war, the loss of army majors and brigadier generals, superior officers trained over decades, is another deeply dark and tragic space in Bangladesh’s history. Yet, the event remains unresolved, the reaction to it muted and the legal procedures questionable. Small scale and subdued tribunals are slowly under way in makeshift courts, a damningly inadequate response to such a heinous offence against the nation. Those bereaved officers who questioned and criticised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over the siege were swiftly discharged from the army. While neglecting the crisis of the present, the authorities have sought to exact political gains by resurrecting and manipulating an event from the past, indeed one which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh and father of Sheikh Hasina, had already resolved soon after the nation’s independence.
Police brutality and death in custody is commonplace in Bangladesh and harassment of the ICT defence has been recorded by Human Rights Watch, among others. Bangladesh also remains the only nation that not only practices execution but has in recent times expanded its use. Add to that an extended vitriolic campaign, involving shockingly graphic posters calling for punishment and execution festooned across the country’s major cities, and the results of the tribunal seem to be a foregone conclusion. The danger of injustice and mistreatment is all too real, and deeply worrying.
Our last visit, before my recent return from Bangladesh, was limited to a paltry half hour with the four of us observed by eleven standing security personnel and several CCTV cameras. My grandfather was laid across the prison bed, physically weaker than I have ever seen him to be, yet encouragement emanating from his eyes and softly spoken words. I tearfully watched my grandmother weep as my grandfather kissed her fingers with the tenderness of one more aware of his beloved wife’s suffering than his own. I was reminded of his last message before arrest, calling on his followers to prioritise the protection of the nation and its people over any concern for him and to obey the law. It is a testament to his courage in the face of adversity, his devotion to his country and his spiritual strength while the rest of us quail. My grandfather has always been a frank and honest man, trusting God and fearing none besides. He has remained steadfast by his ideals and his hopes for his country and its people, dedicating his life to these causes in a way I have never witnessed from any other person. As I witnessed his unchanged spirit in his prison cell, I realised that a man of integrity cannot be conquered.
A.Azam is the grandchild of Professor Ghulam Azam and a writer based in Britain.
Professor Ghulam Azam’s poor conditions in his cell at the BSMMU hospital prison have sparked controversy since his imprisonment without the option of bail on January 11th. On Monday his wife, Syeda Afifa Azam, gave a statement which was published by several newspapers, expressing concern that the 89-year old was suffering from a poor diet and lack of care and support. She spoke of an incident in which the former Jamaat-e-Islami leader was incapacitated for half an hour on the bathroom floor before receiving attention. After this statement, he was allowed an attendant to look after him.
On Saturday afternoon, Azam received a 30 minute visit from his wife, son and daughter-in-law. After the visit, they gave further statements on their shock at Azam’s treatment at the hands of the International Crimes Tribunal.
Azam’s son, Abdullahil Aman Azmi, gave a statement as follows:
“My father is mentally healthy. He has often said in the past that he fears nothing but God. Physically, however, he is gradually becoming weak. His voice has become low. Before going to prison, his weight was 72kg. Last week his weight was 70kg. This week it has gone down by another kilogram.
“We all know the extent of nursing that is needed by someone who is 90 years old. My father still does not receive this kind of care. He is also not getting a balanced diet, which he needs. He likes to eat a variety of foods. But he is not being given this type of diet. He is not receiving food according to his wishes. His eyesight is weakening. Last week his knee was injured, and this wound has not yet healed.
“He has been praying for the country, for the country’s people. He asks for the prayers of the people of Bangladesh.”
On behalf of his family, Abdullahil Aman Azmi asked for the people of Bangladesh to pray for his father’s physical health and his release from prison.
Azam’s wife, Syeda Afifa Azam, also made a statement on Saturday:
“Since the 11th January my husband, Professor Ghulam Azam, has been imprisoned and from that day he has been receiving medical treatment in BSMMU’s ‘prison cell’. We are extremely worried about his health. Today after meeting him in February our anxiety has become horror.
“My husband has been imprisoned for 25 days now. Before he was arrested on the 11th January his weight was 72kg. Last week we found out that his weight was 70[kg]. It seemed even less when I saw him today. In the last 25 days I have managed to see him four times. Every single time I thought that he was becoming steadily weaker. Today [Saturday] he seemed even more dismal. Due to his weakness, he was finding it difficult to speak, his voice was low and his speech was indistinct. This is why I feel extremely scared about my husband’s life.”
Professor Ghulam Azam’s bail petition is to be filed on Monday on grounds of old age and poor health, his first application having been rejected when he was arrested in January. The hearing of the bail petition is expected on Tuesday.
Toby Cadman, an experienced International Criminal Lawyer, spoke at the European Parliament on the 31st January 2012 on the subject of the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh. Other speakers at the event included an ICT prosecution team member and the Bangladeshi Ambassador to the EU amongst others.
While those representing Bangladesh focused on the “culture of impunity” which has resulted in a lack of justice for many thousands of Bangladeshis, they failed to address the fundamental flaws in the ICT trial and its proceedings. Due to the propensity for accusing lawyers and commentators of “contempt of court”, it was necessary to emphasise that there was no intention of trying to prevent the trials from taking place. Toby Cadman focussed his argument on the lack of international standards at the trial, the fact that the court does not uphold national standards nor comply with the international treaties it is nominally party to.
He also highlighted the inadequate time given to the defence to prepare their case, the lack of impartiality of the judges, and the lack of protection for defence witnesses and lawyers. The standard of evidence accepted by the court is also far below what would be expected in a capital case where the outcome is likely to be death by hanging. Indeed the court and some ministers have seemed to pre-ordain the outcome of the trial by suggesting the trial is unnecessary The foreign counsel for the defence have also been denied entry into Bangladesh to assist the local team.
He summarises his arguments in an excellent short article found here.