War crimes Trials in Bangladesh: Another Death sentence on the Horizon?

mujahid

Mohammad Hossain

Since 2010, Bangladesh has more or less been in the world headlines for its notorious war crimes trials that have till date seen the hanging of two prominent Islamist politicians amidst moral backlash from major international rights bodies along with violence on the streets of Bangladesh that have left many dead. Far from the promised reconciliation that these war crimes trials sought to bring, the society in Bangladesh is polarized more than ever on the issue at hand, as many continue to view these trials as part of a political witchhunt by the state in order to eliminate political opposition in the country, especially that from the largest Islamist political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. In the newest of developments, on the 27th of May, a Supreme Court appeals bench headed by Chief Justice SK Sinha has set the date for the declaration of the verdict of appeal against death sentence by Ali Ahsan Mujahid, another Islamist politician, signaling the probability of another death sentence within a short time.

Who is Ali Ahsan Mujahid?

Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid is the Secretary General of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic political party in Bangladesh. He was the Minister for Social Welfare during the tenure of the 4-Party Alliance government led by BNP-Jamaat from 2001-2006. Throughout his political career with Jamaat, he participated and played an important leadership role in recent major political and pro-democratic movements in Bangladesh such as the mass movement against the then autocrat Ershad in 1990 and the movement for holding elections under the caretaker Government from 1994 to 1996. Being from a highly religious family himself; his father Late Maulana Abdul Ali was a renowned religious scholar and saint in Faridpur district, Ali Ahsan Mujahid pushed for government recognition of religious education provided in the multitude of madrassahs throughout Bangladesh. As part of his efforts, in 2002, the then coalition government recognized Fadil (B.A) and Kamil (MA) degrees of Madrasha Education Board, giving millions of madrassah students’ recognition.

His arrest:

In its systematic policy of exterminating the opposition, the government arrested the Ameer of Jamaat Motiur Rahman Nizami, its Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mujahid and Deputy Ameer Mawlana Delawar Hossain Sayeedi on June 29, 2010 on trumped up charges of hurting religious sentiments followed by a subsequent random arrest of hundreds of other leaders and activists throughout the country. Previously, on 26th March 2010, the government had appointed party judges, prosecutors and investigators for the trial under the notorious Crimes (Tribunal) Act, 1973. This was to lead to the beginning of an ongoing black chapter in the history of Bangladesh, the war crimes trials.

The body responsible for overseeing the trials, the International Crimes Tribunal (the ICT), also known as the War Crimes Tribunals, are domestic tribunals set up under domestic law and have consistently refused to allow international oversight or even grant the defence permission to appoint international lawyers. Furthermore, the legislative framework and operation of the tribunals has come under intense criticisms from respectable bodies across the world including the UN, various states including the US, and almost all international human rights organisations.

War crimes case against Mujahid:

In the sixth verdict [1] by the International War Crimes Tribunal, which was delivered on July 17th, 2013 and where the tribunal prosecution had brought seven charges against him, Mujahid was acquitted on two charges, given the death penalty on three charges, and given jail terms for the other two charges. In giving the death sentence, the Tribunal noted that it considered Mujahid’s “superior position of authority on the Al-Badar force together with the intrinsic gravity and degree and pattern of criminal acts” as aggravating factors that further justified the death sentence.

Declaring himself “truly innocent and a victim of 100% injustice”, Mujahid has firmly denied all allegations.

“I was not in Faridpur during war. I was not involved with any crime in 1971. My crime is to involve myself with Islamic Movement,” he said to the judge right from the dock after the verdict was read out.

While Mujahid has never denied that he supported the cause of a unified Pakistan in 1971, he has however, denied his involvement in any crime at the time. The prosecution however, has accused him of being Nizami’s second-in-command in the Al-Badr militia, which allegedly worked closely with the Pakistani army. He was also accused of being involved in the killing of academics. His war crimes case revolves around these central accusations and the verdict, though made questionable by the veracity of the witnesses and the dubious nature of evidence used against him [2], reflects these accusations.

Nature of war crimes tribunal and what to expect:

The farcical nature of the trials had been exposed early on, as the Economist exposed the secret collusion of tribunal judges with outsiders in an affair termed as Skypegate. On 8 December, 2012, the Economist published a report in which it claimed to have acquired hours of recorded conversation between Mr Nasim and a Belgium based Bangladeshi lawyer, Ahmed Ziauddin. The recordings and email correspondences exposed the collusion between the Bangladesh government and the Judges of the International Crimes Tribunal to stage justice where decisions were pre-determined.

And true to the early signs, a series of harsh and totally unjustified verdicts were handed down. The tribunal has handed down to date 17 verdicts, of which 13 are death sentences. Of those tried and sentenced, 10 are central leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and arguably consist of the entire dock of its central leadership. Of these, two leaders have already been executed, Abdul Quader Mollah on 12 December 2013, and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman on 11 April 2015, albeit much criticism from the international community, particularly, the UN, the EU, the US and the HRW regarding violations of fair trial standards and the death penalty.

Looking at the history of the above, it can only be surmised that the government of Bangladesh is bent upon the execution of another political opposition figure in the near future. As earlier mentioned his appeal verdict has been set by the Supreme Court, the last judicial resort, to be declared on the 16th of June. Experts say that not only is this an unprecedented move by the Supreme Court judges in that a date is fixed for delivering a verdict without keeping it Curia advisari vult (CAV), it also may allude to the fact that the judges have already made their mind, perhaps in favour of dismissal of the appeal and the upholding of the death sentence, regarding deliberation on the appeal hearing and on the verdict itself.

Keeping in mind the essential need to ensure a fair trial, not simply for the sake of fairness, but to ensure that irrespective of any political affiliation, justice gets served against the actual perpetrators of the heinous crimes against humanity in 1971, the government should immediately halt the process and as many have iterated since the beginning of the war crimes trial process, should focus instead on restoring fundamental rights protection to the war crimes accused through the termination of the notorious Article 47A (1) of the constitution which specifically strips those accused of war crimes of their right to certain fundamental rights, including the right to an expeditious trial by an independent and impartial court or tribunal, and the right to move the courts to enforce their fundamental rights.

References:

[1] “17 July 2013: Mujahid Found Guilty of 4 Charges – Sentenced to Death”, Bangladesh Trial Observer, accessed May 30, 2015, ( http://bangladeshtrialobserver.org/2013/07/17/17-july-2013-mujahid-found-guilty-of-4-charges-sentenced-to-death/ )

[2] “Sentence Against Mr. Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid is Questionable and Unjust”, Progress Bangladesh, October 9, 2013, ( http://progressbangladesh.com/sentence-against-mr-ali-ahsan-mohammad-mujahid-is-questionable-and-unjust/ )