War crimes trials at a standstill
The backlog of war crimes cases and related appeals at the International Crimes Tribunal and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court is growing as their proceedings remain halted for about 20 months due to the pandemic and other reasons.
No progress has been made in the investigations into war crimes allegations during this period either. This has caused frustration among the justice seekers, including the families of the victims and Liberation War martyrs.
A total of 36 cases are now pending trial at the ICT. Investigations into 459 allegations against 2,744 war crimes suspects and 20 appeals filed with the Appellate Division against the ICT verdicts are pending, ICT prosecution and investigation agency sources said.
The deaths of a siting judge of the ICT, its chief investigator and a senior prosecutor during the pandemic aggravated the situation.
Although the High Court and lower courts are holding trials of other cases virtually using information technology, uncertainty still loomslarge over the resumption of trial proceedings in the cases of crimes against humanity committed during the Liberation War in 1971.
Expressing disappointment at the slow pace of trials, eminent war crimes researcher Shahriar Kabir said it is unfortunate that trials of war crimes remain halted for a long period though the courts for other cases are running smoothly using the information technology.
"We have noticed that the government's interest in holding trials of war crimes cases has slackened in the last few years," he told The Daily Star recently.
Shahriar said the collaborators of Pakistani occupation forces have been tried and punished, but the government is not showing interest in trying their high command and "war criminal organisations", particularly the Jamaat-e-Islami.
He suggested reviving both the ICTs to speed up the trial proceedings of war crimes related cases.
The government also can appoint some judges to the Appellate Division for quick hearing and disposal of the appeals in connection with these cases as ICT is overburdened with cases, he added.
ICT prosecutor Tapas Kanti Paul said the functions of the tribunal slowed after its sitting judge, Justice Amir Hossain, fell ill last year. He died on August 24 this year.
On the other hand, Abdul Hannan Khan, chief investigator of ICT, died of Covid-19 on November 29 last year and senior prosecutor Zead Al Malum passed away on June 27 this year.
"The pandemic situation has improved now and we are hopeful that we will move war crimes related cases before the ICT within a short time," Tapas said.
He said the arrested war crimes accused could not be brought to the ICT from the prisons due to the pandemic.
Appearance of any war crimes accused before the ICT is mandatory during depositions and cross-examinations of witnesses, he said.
Meanwhile, the government on October 14 appointed Justice KM Hafizul Alam, a High Court judge, as a member of the ICT to fill up the post which fell vacant after the death of Justice Amir.
Investigation agency coordinator Sanaul Huq told this correspondent that although the agency was working on a limited scale since the death of Justice Amir, they would ramp up its operations after the resumption of trials by the ICT.
So far, 100 people have been tried by two special tribunals over committing crimes against humanity. Six of them have been executed in the last 11 years.
Besides, hearings in appeals in 22 war crimes related cases have been pending with the Appellate Division for about 20 months.
The Awami League-led government formed the first International Crimes Tribunal (ICT-1) on March 25, 2010 in line with the party's electoral pledge to try people who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in 1971.
The second tribunal (ICT-2) was formed on March 22, 2012 to expedite the trials. But the government kept one of the tribunals almost dormant since September 15, 2015 following the drop in the number of cases.
The ICT-1 has delivered 31 judgments in war crimes related cases from February 28, 2013 to February 11 this year, while the ICT-2 has delivered 11 verdicts in such cases from January 21, 2013 to July 16, 2015, according to the information available on their websites.
A study by Law Lab, a law chamber that conducts research on different legal issues, found that a total of 100 people, including 52 absconding convicts, have been tried so far by the two tribunals.
Of them, 67 were sentenced to death, 26 to life imprisonment, five got 20 years in jail, one (Ghulam Azam) was sentenced to 90 years' imprisonment, and one was acquitted.
A total of 34 appeals have been filed with the apex court challenging the war crimes tribunals' verdicts. Nine appeals were disposed of and three others filed by accused Ghulam Azam, Mawlana Abdus Sobhan, and Abdul Alim were declaredabatedfollowing their deaths, Advocate Mohammad Shishir Manir, head of the Law Lab, told The Daily Star.
The Appellate Division heard the last war crimes related appeal on December 3, 2019. Convicted war criminal Syed Mohammad Qaisar filed it, challenging the death penalty handed to him by an ICT in 2014.