Please see the following for a sample letter to send to your MP or representative. A copy can be downloaded here: Letter_to_MPs_on_ICT 02-13
The International Crimes Tribunal, Bangladesh
Bangladesh is currently trying alleged war criminals for crimes committed during the independence war of 1971, under the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 as amended in 2009. This Act established the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The original intention of the Act was to try the Pakistani military and auxiliary forces, which were considered responsible for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.
However, instead of trying these Pakistani forces in the aftermath of the war, the Act is being used today in a manner that targets members of the political opposition, alleging that they engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity as members of the Bengali auxiliary forces of the Pakistani Army. Further, the Act does not encompass alleged war crimes committed against non-Bengalis (predominantly Biharis) by pro-liberation freedom fighters. Therefore, there is widespread concern that the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act is being used as a political tool to weaken the opposition, rather than the tool for justice that it should be. This is against a background of brutal suppression by the governing Awami League party of freedom of speech and political expression, including the carrying out of extra-judicial killings, torture and detention without trial, as reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
The International Crimes Tribunal has been the subject of concern to many leading international bodies and organisations, including the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the International Bar Association, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as US Ambassador for War Crimes Stephen Rapp. Key concerns include:
- the accused are afforded neither internationally accepted defendants’ rights nor fundamental national constitutional rights;
- lack of definitions for key crimes, including ‘crimes against humanity’;
- interrogation of defendants in the absence of counsel and without knowledge of the charges against them;
- extraordinary sources accepted as evidence, including general media reports and hearsay; and
- apparent bias on the part of the Tribunal members based on participation at mock “peoples’ courts”, which prejudged the cases of key defendants, with mock convictions and the burning of effigies to symbolise their execution;
- collusion between judges, the prosecution, the government and international lawyers with respect to court proceedings and the drafting of final judgments (see further below).
Professor Ghulam Azam, aged 90, was arrested on 11 January 2012 on 62 charges including the absurd charge of responsibility “for all atrocities committed across the country between March 25, 1971, and December 16, 1971”. Azam politically supported the unity of West and East Pakistan at the time of the war of independence, but he was opposed to a military solution to political problems and spoke out repeatedly against the crimes perpetrated by the military and paramilitary. Ghulam Azam’s family, many of whom are British citizens, are deeply concerned at the allegations being made against him and fear that he may eventually be convicted by virtue of media reports and hearsay evidence alone. The punishment for any such conviction will almost certainly be execution, probably by hanging.
Azam is currently detained under very difficult conditions; aggravated by the fact that he has a number of age-related ailments. Despite not yet being indicted on any charges, he is being held virtually in solitary isolation and permitted merely a half-hour visit from his family a week, which is occasionally denied.
In November 2012, Human Rights Watch has, expressed concern regarding an alleged defence witness in one of the cases who was allegedly abducted by plain clothes police outside the tribunal gates. Defence lawyers have been intimidated and harassed by Bangladeshi police and intelligence services. In December 2012, the Economist magazine published an analysis of the contents of leaked email and Skype communications between the chairman of the ICT and a Brussels-based lawyer of Bangladeshi origin. According to the Economist, the communications indicated collusion between the judge, the prosecution and Bangladeshi government. The leaks resulted in the chairman resigning from the tribunal; however the tribunal has continued to proceed with the relevant cases, despite newly appointed judges not having been present for the entire trial.
United Nations human rights experts have expressed concerns regarding the impartiality of judges and the prosecution, and their independence from the executive. They have also stressed that compliance with international standards of fair trial and due process should be at their most stringent when the death penalty is being imposed.
Most recently, the Bangladeshi government amended the ICT legal framework in order to enable the prosecution to overturn a sentence imposed on one of the defendants, a step which Human Rights Watch considers “make a mockery of the trial process”. Human Rights Watch also reported that defence witnesses are deciding not to appear in court out of fear for their safety. It also expressed concern that the judges will be forced to give death sentence in all other cases – including Azam’s.
I respectfully request that you table a Parliamentary Question on this matter and do all that is in your power to stop this injustice continuing. I also request that the British government send a message of concern to the Government of Bangladesh regarding the human rights situation generally and specifically the on-going war crimes trials.
 “A Tribunal shall not be bound by technical rules of evidence; and it shall adopt and apply to the greatest possible extent expeditious and non-technical procedure, and may admit any evidence, including reports and photographs published in newspapers, periodicals and magazines, films and taperecordings and other materials as may be tendered before it, which it deems to have probative value.” Article 19 (1), THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMES (TRIBUNALS) ACT, 1973.
 “Upon conviction of an accused person, the Tribunal shall award sentence of death or such other punishment proportionate to the gravity of the crime as appears to the Tribunal to be just and proper.” Article 20 (2), THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMES (TRIBUNALS) ACT, 1973.
 Bangladesh: Investigate Alleged Abduction of War Crimes Witness, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/11/13/bangladesh-investigate-alleged-abduction-war-crimes-witness, 13/11/2012 (accessed 20/02/2013).
 Bangladesh: End Harassment of War Crimes Defense Counsel, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/17/bangladesh-end-harassment-war-crimes-defense-counsel, 17/10/2012 (accessed 20/02/2013).
 The Trial of the Birth of a Nation, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21568349-week-chairman-bangladeshs-international-crimes-tribunal-resigned-we-explain, 15/12/2012 (accessed 20/02/2013).
 Bangladesh: Retrial Needed in Sayedee Case, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/13/bangladesh-retrial-needed-sayedee-case, 13/12/2012 (accessed 20/02/2013).
 Bangladesh: United Nations Experts Warn that Justice for the Past Requires Fair Trials, United Nations, http://www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/%28httpnewsbyyear_en%29/56813fe83e407dcbc1257b0b00516190?opendocument, 07/02/2013 (accessed 21/02/2013).
 Bangladesh: Post-Trial Amendments Taint War Crimes Process, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/02/14/bangladesh-post-trial-amendments-taint-war-crimes-process, 14/02/2013 (accessed 21/02/2013).
Salman Azami, youngest son of Professor Ghulam Azam has written about his father’s significant role in the language movement. The article is reproduced here from Open Democracy.
As the world celebrates International Mother Language Day in memory of the Bangla Language Movement, Bangladeshis at Shabagh would do well to understand one of its forgotten language soldiers.
The historic Bangla language movement of the mid-twentieth century is an inspirational part of Bangladeshi heritage. The heroics, sacrifices, passion for the mother tongue, and patriotism to the motherland made the powerful rulers of the then Pakistan yield to public demand and accept Bangla as one of the official languages of the country. It is a tragic tale with a happy ending: Bangla eventually achieved the status it deserved, albeit at the cost of valuable lives. Now, 21st February, the day some brave Bengalis laid down their lives for their mother tongue sixty-one years ago, has been recognized and celebrated around the world after UNESCO declared it as International Mother Language Day.
This year the Bangladesh that celebrates the Bangla language is more divided than ever before. The current Awami League led government and its leftist allies have encouraged and supported a protest initiated by a few so-called ‘online activists’, clearly following the government agenda through their demands. Begun in the capital Dhaka, the protest has successfully mobilized a significant number of urban youths to call for death sentences to be handed out to top leaders of the opposition party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. They accuse the party and its leaders of having collaborated with Pakistani soldiers in committing crimes against humanity during the liberation war of 1971 including murder, rape and arson. The party and its leaders strongly deny these allegations and insist that they are all baseless propaganda, fueled over many years by partisan political and media rhetoric in Bangladesh. The government has set up an International Crimes Tribunal and arrested almost the entire leadership of the party including its retired former president Professor Ghulam Azam. Azam was one of the leading figures of the language movement, but has never been officially recognized for his contribution.
A brief history of the Language Movement
Pakistan and India became independent from British rule in 1947 based on a two-nations theory with the Muslim majority areas falling under Pakistan and the Hindu majority areas under India. The Muslim majority region of Bengal, which following Partition was to form East Pakistan, showed overwhelming support to be with the new nation of Pakistan though the Bengalis were geographically, linguistically and culturally many miles apart from their West Pakistani compatriots.
The ruling elites, almost entirely based in West Pakistan, single-handedly decided to make Urdu the only official language of the new country, whereas majority of the population living in East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) could not speak Urdu as Bangla was their main language. Urdu was, and still is, a minority language in Pakistan; less than 8% speak it as their mother tongue today. But the ruling class refused to acknowledge East Pakistan’s linguistic right. On 21st March 1948, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah infamously declared in Dhaka, “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language of Pakistan.”
Jinnah’s announcement sparked huge outcry among the already agitated Bengali population of the East who continued their struggle for their language. Demonstrations and processions were organized on 21st February 1952 throughout East Pakistan. The people defied a ban on demonstrations imposed by the government and police fired upon them, killing several. More were killed the following day. These activists would come to be known as the ‘martyrs’ of the language movement and a monument, the Shaheed Minar, would later be erected in their memory. Four years later, on 16th February 1956, the struggle for language rights succeeded: the National Assembly of Pakistan amended the legislation and declared both Urdu and Bangla as state languages.
Bangladeshis take immense pride in the language movement and have been observing 21st February as the National Martyrs’ Day long before UNESCO declared it the International Mother Language Day in 1999. The linguistic identity of Bangla speakers is an intrinsic part of their national identity.
A misunderstood leader
Ghulam Azam was a popular leader during his student life. He became an Assistant Secretary of East Pakistan Cultural Union for the term 1945-1946. He was elected General Secretary of the Hall Union of Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall of Dhaka University for the term 1946-47. He was subsequently elected General Secretary of Dhaka University Central Students Union for both the 1947-48 and 1948-49 terms. On 27 November 1948, as the then General Secretary of Dhaka University Students’ Union, he presented a memorandum to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liakat Ali Khan at Gymnasium Ground, Dhaka University, demanding Bangla to be the state language of Pakistan.
Azam was actively involved with Tamaddun Majlish, an organisation that played a key role in the language movement, and founded a branch of it in Rangpur. Due to his role in the language movement he was arrested three times, in 1948, 1952 and 1954. In 1955 he lost his job as a faculty member at Rangpur Carmichael College for his leadership role in the movement. Although his job was reinstated after a strong student protest, he declined as he had decided to join Jamaat-e-Islami by then and leave his academic career.
Ghulam Azam ‘s contribution to the language movement has been completely ignored and his role as a student leader has been struck from history. The record of the two years he was the General Secretary of Dhaka University Central Students’ Union is missing in its official board.
Deeply passionate about his land of birth, Azam was actively involved in democratic movements along with leaders like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He opposed the 1971 liberation war, because he believed it would not solve the problems of the Bengali people but rather transfer power from Rawalpindi to New Delhi. He has asserted that he tried his best to save innocent Bengalis from the Pakistani army’s abuse when the other national leaders taking part in the Liberation War fled to India.
Despite politically opposing the secession from Pakistan, Azam embraced Bangladesh as his country when it became independent and strove to serve it. His opponents claim that he lobbied against independent Bangladesh while in exile after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman cancelled his citizenship. In fact he lobbied for Saudi Arabia to recognise Bangladesh after former President Ziaur Rahman removed secularism and socialism from Bangladesh’s constitution. He came back to Bangladesh as soon as he was allowed to despite offers of a comfortable life abroad and remained without official citizenship until the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored his citizenship in an historic judgment in 1994.
He conceived the Caretaker Government Formula – the process through which a neutral non-partisan government oversees the parliamentary election, which the current regime controversially abolished. He was also instrumental in forming the Four-party Alliance, which made a landslide victory in the 2001 parliamentary elections. In spite of his contributions, he never held any public office and led a very simple life.
Shahbagh: a sham struggle
Very few Bangladeshi politicians have contributed so much with so little official recognition. In contrast, Azam has been subject to nonstop propaganda, slander and character assassination. History has been distorted for political convenience. The youth of Bangladesh now flocking to Shahbagh have never met him, nor have they any idea who the actual Ghulam Azam is. All they have witnessed is partisan and unethical media reporting.
The Bangladeshi people have previously successfully striven against powerful oppressive establishments. From 1948 to 1952 they struggled against an oppressive regime; in 1969 they spontaneously took part in the uprising against autocratic rule; in 1971 they fought and laid down their lives against a powerful army; and in 1990 they took to the streets to free the country from a corrupt dictator. When some call the current Shahbagh ‘festival’ as a movement, they insult the glorious history of previous movements. Bangladeshis are known for their emotions, which had been positively used in the past. However, this time the emotions have been cleverly exploited by the ruling regime, and it has done nothing but divide the country.
When an oppressive regime is providing free food, drinks, wifi and police/CCTV protection to one demonstration while brutally killing their opponents for practicing their democratic right to protest, then any sensible person can understand the reality of what is happening. A corrupt government is running a political show trial to summarily execute their political enemies. This is an insult to the families of the 1971 war victims who deserve a fair trial so that the real perpetrators are punished.
Lives are at stake in Bangladesh, but despite outcries by countless major international human rights organizations innocent people are being witch hunted for lynching. If the international community fails to ensure proper judicial process in the War Crimes Tribunal and judicial murder takes place, then we will all witness the death of democracy and fundamental human rights in Bangladesh.
On the occasion of the 61st anniversary of the great language movement it is time that Bangladeshis acknowledge their true patriots and use their emotions in the right direction. It is time that everyone realises what is the best way to repay the sacrifices of the martyrs of the language movement and the liberation war: to unite the country and build its future rather than divide it and lead it towards a propaganda-fed civil war.
Please continue to campaign against the unfair and illegal trial of Professor Ghulam Azam
Points of note:
- Following intimidation and the aggressive nature of the Shahbag protests, many defence witnesses have been too afraid for their safety and the protection of their families to appear in court and testify for the accused. Climate of fear undermines this sham tribunal. Prof Azam began with thousands of witnesses, the court limited it [on prosecution request, astoundingly] to twelve, they are now proceeding on just one defence witness statement. This means Prof Azam had a total of one witness permitted in this high profile case of 52 charges that is 42 yrs after the events of 71.
- The defence lawyers have been harassed and intimidated and lawyers from abroad have been prevented from entering Bangladesh to provide assistance to the defence team.
- The government have passed a law which allows them to challenge the judge’s sentence in the case – this contravenes international legal agreements that Bangladesh is party to.
- There is clear evidence of collusion between the government, the original judge Nizamul Hoq (who has since resigned) and prosecutors.
- Due to the current climate of fear in Bangladesh, there is no possibility of a fair trial and the trial must be moved to an international setting with impartial observers.
Please act now to prevent a serious miscarriage of justice that will seriously damage Bangladesh’s future!
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The recent events in Bangladesh are dealt with in this article by Mahin Khan for Open Democracy.
The text is below:
Laws of Passion – Shahbag Protests
The second verdict handed down by Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal is life imprisonment. Now a death sentence is being demanded in mass protests supported by the ruling regime, with calls for violence that extend into Bangladeshi society. Yet the guilty verdict itself may be a far cry from sound.
Thousands have gathered across Bangladesh in protest across several cities. Images of the freedom movements of the Middle East are evoked, but this is no freedom movement. The protesters have gathered to speak out against the second verdict handed down by the Bangladesh International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Abdul Quader Molla, a senior leader of the opposition party, Jamaat-i-Islami, was found guilty by the ICT of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. To the protestors, who began their movement in the Shahbag crossing of the capital Dhaka, this is not enough. They want Molla and the other accused hanged.
Molla denies having committed the crimes and repeated his denial upon receiving the sentence. His party has strongly condemned the verdict as politically motivated while his lawyers have pledged to appeal to the high court. Among the concerns raised by the defence are that the prosecution only presented 12 witnesses, many of whom were ‘hearsay’ witnesses and beneficiaries of the ruling Awami League led regime that has championed this tribunal. More tellingly, the defence themselves were permitted to only present six witnesses, half those permitted the prosecution, in this high profile and much belated war crimes case. Ultimately, the lawyers observed that the trial dealt with deeply emotional issues and the judges had permitted their emotions to cloud their judgement.
The concerns are glaring. Nonetheless, the government’s junior Law Minister, Qamrul Islam, has expressed dissatisfaction at the ‘leniency’ of the verdict. Islam has, incredibly, confirmed the government is now preparing to make changes to the ICT Act to allow the prosecution to appeal the verdict of life imprisonment and seek the higher sentence of execution. Under current laws the prosecution can only appeal acquittals. The Law Commission of Bangladesh has already presented draft amendments to the Bangladesh Law Ministry.
There has been much international criticism for the ICT, and not without reason. The most recent, and most high profile, includes a statement issued by the United Nations in which Christof Heyns, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, “expressed alarm” at the fair trial and due process concerns raised, stating “Capital punishment may be imposed only following proceedings that give all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial and due process, at least equal to those stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a State party.”
Not long before the UN statement, Human Rights Watch, in its latest of a series of press releases expressing concerns over the ICT and as part of its World Report 2013, condemned the current running of the tribunal. The report commented on “glaring violations of fair trial standards” in the trials of the ICT, observing that “serious flaws in the law and rules of procedure governing these trials have gone unaddressed, despite proposals from the US government and many international experts.”
These are not the only reputable – and clearly impartial – international bodies to have expressed concerns. Apprehensions have been vocalised by members of the House of Lords in Britain, Lord Avebury and Lord Carlile. The US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, Stephen J Rapp has also spoken out, as has the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Centre for Transitional Justice. Critique for the current process has also come from the International Bar Association, as well as Suzannah Linton, a respected legal academic. Previous statements of concern issued by Human Rights Watch, particularly regarding an abducted defence witness, the need for retrials following a whistleblower leak that exposed improper coordination between judges, prosecution and government, and on the trials’ flawed legal framework, can be viewed here, here and here.
Perhaps the most interesting international report on the ICT, however, came from The Economist. In an analysis, the British based news magazine revealed it had been given a cache of leaked material that exposed ‘a disturbing pattern’ of collusion between the presiding judge of the tribunal, Nizamul Haque Nasim, an international lawyer based in Brussels, Ziauddin Ahmed, and the prosecution team. Furthermore, it became clear from the leaks that the government was applying serious pressure on the ICT to come up with quick verdicts.
For their part, the opposition party, Jamaat-i-Islami, and its youth wing, Chatra Shibir, have been protesting the partial and political nature of the ICT, under which all their senior most leaders stand accused. They have, however, been specific in asserting that they will stand by any new court that is established on fair grounds and following due process. These protests, while large and countrywide, have not enjoyed the same widespread and rose-tinted coverage by the pro-regime media as Shahbag has. Instead, this opposition has been sharply and consistently condemned as a ‘conspiracy’ to undermine the tribunal, with complete disregard for the opposition party’s expressed acceptance of a tribunal that respects due process and fulfills international standards. Meanwhile, the police, in coalition with the ruling regime’s youth, the Bangladesh Chatra League, have administered a brutal crackdown on opposition rallies, leaving many dead and arresting hundreds. Recent protests resulted in four deaths of Jamaat and Shibir members, including a boy of class 10.
The protests in Shahbag and elsewhere in the country, are an interesting addition to the mix. These protestors, unlike the opposition, have faced no police violence; indeed the police have been helping them along by diverting traffic (meanwhile, police have prevented another opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, from holding a prescheduled rally on Saturday). This is perhaps unsurprising, given the protesters of Shahbag are repeating the very demands members of the ruling regime have been making throughout the ICT process. While Shahbag may claim to be apolitical, it is evident their concordance with the nation’s ruling politicians is doing much to assist the cause. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself has openly expressed solidarity with the protest and committed herself to fulfilling the protestors’ demands, stating in parliament “Every word of their oath is justified. We will do whatever necessary to implement their oath. It is our commitment” and even whimsically commenting “My soul is also with them, I wish I could join them at Shahbagh.”
It has also proven almost impossible to reason with the protestors, many of whom aggressively denounce any critique of their movement as “pro-Pakistani”, “pro-war criminal”, “unpatriotic” and accuse critics of being “razakars” (“collaborators” – a derogatory term for those deemed to have assisted the Pakistan army in 1971), “neo-razakars” or “children of war criminals” among any number of other tasteless epithets. That blindly angry individuals of this kind are likely to descend upon this article too is quite expected.
The protest has gathered people of varying ages with a common cause. Photos are appearing of protestors wearing “we want razakars hanged” bandannas across their forehead, while Shahbag slogans are being broadcast across the media: “We have only one demand, hang the Razakars”, “Hanging, we want hanging!”, “Make batons, beat Shibir”, “Throw shoes at the face of Razakars”, “catch Shibir and slaughter them”. Meanwhile, there have been placards proclaiming “I want to murder Quader Molla and spend two months in prison”. Even young children have been photographed with “we want the razakars hanged” painted in blood red across their torso.
The terms of this protest are truly disturbing in their open advocacy of violence and capital punishment, particularly in their inclusion of children in this violent and vindictive approach. While Bangladesh was freed as a nation in 1971, it is clear that it is yet to be freed from the aggressive hate of the dominant liberation narrative. Much as the Bengali media may try to claim it, this rally is no Tahrir Square, where the noble cause of protest was freedom from oppressive dictatorship and the establishment of democracy. This rally is one of hate and revenge. As one astute blogger notes, this is not Shahbag Square, this is Shahbag More with more people than usual. Some protestors have even created the slogan, “we’ve got the razakars, what about their children?” Little is left to be said.
The Shahbag protestors have also been calling for the banning of Jamaat-i-Islami, taking pledges to boycott many of Jamaat’s institutions, including hospitals and banks. That a democratic party – the only one to be internally democratic in structure in a nation of dynastic political parties – should be banned in the name of secular democracy is an incredible claim. As a registered political party that observes due political processes, there is little claim to ban the party if democracy is to be respected. The democratic way to oppose would be to use the ballot – if you don’t like them, don’t vote for them. Yet this fact appears to elude the self-proclaimed secular democrats of this protest, and a more autocratic law of governance seems to paradoxically reign.
Aristotle states in his Politics that “the law is reason unaffected by desire” (in a more popular variant: “the law is reason free from passion”). The Shahbag protest only confirms that Bangladesh is singularly ill-suited to hold a tribunal over the terrible war crimes of 1971. As the glaringly controversial and compromised tribunal continues to conduct problematic trials, the people on the ground of Shahbag are evidently more interested in revenge fed by deep vitriolic passions than true justice conducted by a rational and balanced court of law. For this reason, among the great many others, it is imperative that the Bangladesh ICT be transferred abroad, to be conducted under the jurisdiction of the United Nations, where heated passions of either party in this conflict cannot compromise a court in which lives – both those murdered in 1971 and those behind bars today – are in the balance.