The debate over war crimes trials: Is there any merit? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 12, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:51 AM, April 30, 2015

The debate over war crimes trials: Is there any merit?

IF the formalities are completed as expected, war criminal Muhammad Kamruzzaman's execution might have been carried out by the time this piece sees the light of day. However, just like the reactions following every other conviction by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a few international bodies and human right organisations have expressed their dissatisfaction with the trial process and urged the Bangladesh government to halt the execution of the Jamaat leader and give a total moratorium on the death penalty.

The first and foremost among them is a human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in the USA. Its statement was similar to the ones it released after every war trial conviction in Bangladesh. “The Bangladesh government should impose a moratorium on the death penalty and quickly join the growing number of countries that have abolished this barbaric practice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW. “The severity of the offence in question provides no justification for its continued use,” the statement went on. Terming the trial “seriously flawed”, it said, “The authorities should immediately stay Kamaruzzaman's death sentence pending an independent review of his case.”

The United Nations High Rights Council (UNHRC) in a statement on April 8 urged the Bangladesh government to halt the execution of war criminal Muhammad Kamaruzzaman. “We urgently call on the Government of Bangladesh to halt the execution of Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, leader of Jamaat-e-Islami. The trial was reportedly marked by irregularities and failed to meet international fair trial standards,” said the statement.

The European Union (EU) has called upon Bangladesh authorities to commute all death sentences and introduce moratorium on executions as a first step towards definitive abolition of the capital punishment. “Capital punishment is not a deterrent against crime and makes miscarriages of justice irreversible,” the statement said.

Obviously, capital punishment is a debated issue worldwide, and the arguments on both sides are equally strong. The proponents argue that the preciousness of life in a community must be so highly honoured that those who do not honour the life of others make null and void their own right to membership in the community. On the other hand, even in societies where the judiciary can rightfully boast of being the finest organ of the state and the members of the community possess unflinching trust in its deliberations, the opponents of capital punishment argue that the denial of right of life is irrevocable, and the errors of justice cannot be rectified. 

Out of the three, EU's statement is very general in nature. In addition to the above assertions, both in favour of and against capital punishment, one has to perceive the socio-political aspect of the society to make an absolute standing on the issue. One has to take into cognisance the fact that it is only possible in Bangladesh, not in any member country of the EU, that a convicted cold blooded murderer of seven students at Dhaka University was freed from life imprisonment by the first military ruler of Bangladesh. Only a few years ago, a convicted killer got presidential mercy and his death sentence was commuted to acquittal, not even to life imprisonment. Does this type of socio-political scenario exist in any country of the EU?

The UNHRC and HRW statements referred specifically to the conviction of Kamaruzzaman. In the first place, both the organisations are troubled by the trials and convictions of the perpetrators of the genocide committed to our people, some 44 years ago. Incidentally, the very day these statements were issued, a convict by the name of Azizul Haque Bacchu was hanged to death in Kashimpur jail for killing two girls in Natore. However, neither the UNHRC nor the HRW had any concerns for Bacchu, who killed 'only' two people while their concerns were categorical and vociferous for a convict who, in addition to other offenses, participated in cold-blooded mass killings.

In the US, the seat of both the UN and HRW, 32 states still carry the death penalty and in 2014 alone, there were 35 executions and10 executions have already been carried out in the first quarter of 2015. In fact, the US ranks fourth in the world in terms of executing the death penalty. From 1976 till March 18, 2015, 1,404 people have been executed in US. And in a Gallup poll, it was reported that sixty-three percent of the people in the US are in favour of awarding death penalties to the perpetrators of genocide in particular. On April 8, the jury found 21-year old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty in the Boston Marathon bombing trial. He was found guilty on the 30 counts he faced, including 17 counts that carry the death penalty for killing three people. The world has not heard any concerns from either of the organisations regarding the trial.

Both the organisations have discovered that trial is “seriously flawed” and the HRW has gone one step further by making the most outrageous assertion: “The severity of the offence in question provides no justification for its continued use.” However, neither the UNHRC and HRW elaborated what they found “seriously flawed” in the trials, nor did they disclose the source of their information. Interestingly, the HRW did not consider the 'killing of 164 people' by Kamaruzzaman, in addition to other serious offenses, as a “severe offence”! 

In my limited research, I have not come across any war crimes tribunal whose proceedings are so transparent and where the defendants are given VIP treatment. Also in accordance with international standards, trials are open to all. At the same time, the accused are given adequate time and facilities to prepare their cases. Prosecutors must furnish them a list of witnesses along with the copies of recorded statements and documents upon which they intend to rely. Defendants also have an unfettered right to call witnesses and to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. All of this is in keeping with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The US ambassador-at-large for war crimes Stephen Rapp, who visited Bangladesh a number of times over the past years to monitor the trial process, has emphatically lauded all attributes of the trial process in his last visit to Dhaka in August. In his words, “the best way in the world to find the truth is the judicial process where the evidence is presented, where witnesses are cross-examined, where both sides have an opportunity to be heard and that is what is being done here [Bangladesh]. It is the process that the American government strongly supports,” he affirmed.

The critics will be doing themselves a favour if they go through the recently published, much-acclaimed book, 'Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and A Forgotten Genocide', by the Harvard-educated Prof. Gary Bass of Princeton University. They could thus know a bit more about the genocide in Bangladesh which included the participation of these convicts or alleged convicts, who unhesitatingly committed cold-blooded murders of an unarmed and innocent populace.


The writer is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh.  

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