The Awami League and its allies on Sunday pushed through Parliament a law incorporating the provision for trying political parties and organisations alongside individuals for 1971 war crimes.
The amended 1973 International Crimes Tribunal Act also arms the government with the right, equal to defendants, to appeal against verdicts by the tribunals for ‘crimes against humanity’ during the War of Independence.
The amendment came in the wake of a protest that continued for the 13th consecutive day on Sunday, rallying tens of thousands of people behind the demand of handing death sentence to war criminals.
The Awami League and its fraternal parties enjoy a huge majority in Parliament. The BNP and other opposition parties have been staying away from it in support of their demand for an interim caretaker administration to supervise the national elections.
The amended ICT Act will now not only facilitate an appeal against Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Molla’s life sentence by the prosecution, but will also allow dragging organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami to the special tribunals and charge them for committing ‘crimes against humanity’.
The Jamaat-e-Islami opposed the cause of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and the fundamentalist party sided with Pakistan’s army. Its leaders and activists joined the auxiliary support forces like the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al Shams which were responsible for some of the horrendous atrocities during the war.
Nine top leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and two of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are currently standing trial in the two war crimes tribunals.
Street protests began the day Molla was sentenced to prison for life as a special war crimes tribunal found five of the six charges of crimes against humanity brought against him proved beyond doubt.
The verdict outraged the nation, especially the youth, who used social networking sites calling for a protest as the charges proved against Molla included genocide and there had been no provision in the law that allowed victims to appeal against the verdict.
About a hundred blocked Shahbagh intersection on Feb 5 in response to the call, and Shahbagh became the place for entire nation to gather to press for their demands, including punishing organisations that stood against Independence War in 1971 and ensuring war crime victims equal right to challenge a conviction just like a convict.
The news of the amendment was greeted with applause and slogans by the protesters at Shahbagh intersection dampened by an untimely drizzle in the afternoon and reeling from the loss of a comrade.
On Friday, one of the Shahbagh activists, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was hacked to death allegedly by Jamaat activists apparently in their desperation to suppress the agitation.
The amendment now paves way for appealing against the life term verdict of Molla and also for putting Jamaat-e-Islami in the dock for its war time role in favour of then the West Pakistani occupation force in 1971.
Of the nine standing the war crimes trial at the ICTs, seven had led Jamaat and its erstwhile students wing Islami Chhatra Sangha to mobilise people using Islam against the independence of Bangladesh.
In 1971, Jamaat also opened several paramilitary forces, one of which was involved in preparing the list of intellectuals killed on Dec 14, two days before independence, apparently to cripple the nation intellectually in the face of an inevitable defeat.
In the two verdicts delivered by ICT, the three-member judge panel unanimously found Jamaat’s involvement as an organisation in crimes against humanity committed in 1971.
It took four decades to bring the war criminals to justice and still there was no provision in the ICT Act for trying Jamaat as an organisation when the trial began in 2010.
The Shahbagh protest raised the demand of trying organisations involved in war crimes arguing that Nazi Party was banned in Germany after the World War II for its war crimes.
Almost all MPs of the ruling Awami League-led coalition passed the International Crimes (Tribunals) (Amendment) Act Bill-2013 by voice vote. The only Independent MP Fazlul Azim was not present.
The bill will now be put up for Presidential assent. Once that happens, the amended Act will be applicable to all cases since July 14, 2009 when the ICT law was amended for beginning the war crimes trial.
One of the activists leading the Shahbagh protests, Imran H Sarker, saw the passage of the amendment as a ‘primary victory’.
The protest organised by Blogger and Online Activists Network spread fast across Bangladesh and beyond. People thronged in their tens of thousands every day, especially on weekends, and promised to not return home until the demands were met.
Ministers, politicians, media personalities, and cultural activists threw their weights behind the protesters. Parliament also extended its support to the demands last week.
On Feb 10, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said in Parliament that she found all the demands justified and that she would ensure that the demands were respected.
The Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs began working on a draft immediately and the Cabinet gave its nod to the proposed amendments on Feb 13.
The Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Ministry was given a day to examine the proposal.
The Bill was finally tabled on Feb 13.
Law Minister Shafique Ahmed raised the Bill for its passage on Sunday. Workers Party President Rashed Khan Menon proposed amendments to two more points in the law.
“Besides an individual, an organisation should also be brought to justice. In the verdict against Bachchu Razakar it was explained how Jamaat has been involved in atrocities(during 1971 war),” said Menon.
Speaker Abdul Hamid invited the Law Minister to read Article 47 (3) of the Constitution after Menon completed his speech.
“Notwithstanding anything contained in this Constitution, no law nor any provision thereof providing for detention, prosecution or punishment of any person, who is a member of any armed or defence or auxiliary forces or who is a prisoner of war, for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes and other crimes under international law shall be deemed void or unlawful, or ever to have become void or unlawful, on the ground that such law or provision of any such law is inconsistent with, or repugnant to any of the provisions of this Constitution,” read the Article.
Menon suggested that ‘or organisation’ be added after the word ‘individuals’ in the section 3 (1) of ICT law.
“Nazis were put on trial after the Second World War. The proposal the honourable MP (Menon) has made can be accepted,” said the Law Minister.
Then the amendments, including the one proposed by Menon, were passed by voice vote.
ICT handed former Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad, infamous for his wartime role as Bachchu Razakar, death sentence in its first verdict.
In the verdict, the tribunal observed, Jamaat-e-Islam helped Pakistan military in the war against unarmed Bengalis by establishing ‘armed forces’ in the name of ‘saving Pakistan.’
The second verdict of the tribunal, given against Abdul Quader Molla, provided more details on Jamaat role in organising auxiliary forces in support of Pakistan.
Regarding Jamaat and Islami Chhatra Shangha, currently known as Islami Chhatra Shibir, the verdict observed that a very few Bengali, Biharis, other pro-Pakistani organisations and religion-based political parties, especially Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shangha, Muslim League, Pakistan Democratic Party, Council Muslim League, Nezam-e-Islami had joined the occupying Pakistani force or barbarically assisted to resist the idea of an independent Bangladesh.
They had committed themselves to barbaric activities in violation of traditional international laws for assisting the Pakistani occupation force, observed the verdict.
Regarding Jamaat’s direct relation with auxiliary forces like Razakar, Al Badr, the verdict observed Jamaat-e-Islami and other pro-Pakistan political parties had played a pivotal role in establishing these types of paramilitary forces (auxiliary forces) for killing civilian Bangladeshis in the name of protecting Pakistan.
Equal right to appeal
The amendment says any ‘aggrieved individual’ may appeal against a verdict just like a convict for the sake of ensuring justice for both the parties in the tribunal law.
Section 21 (4) of the amendment said, an appeal must be settled in 60 days of its filing. Section 21 (1) of the law said, a convict may appeal against his sentence.
The Section 21 (2) said, the same way the government or the complainant or he who investigated the case may appeal against a verdict or an order of conviction.
Sections 21 (1) and 21 (2) said the appeal has to be filed in 30 days after the verdict was delivered.
In the original 1973 ICT law the prosecution was not given the right to appeal against a verdict. The provision was incorporated through amendments in 2009, but only in case of acquittal of an accused.
The Awami League-led alliance made the amendment after assuming power with three-fourth majority in line with one of its major electoral pledges of trying war crimes.