BANGKOK — Bangladesh's controversial and scandal-ridden international war crimes court, the International Crimes Tribunal, handed down its first verdict this week, sentencing accused war criminal Abul Kalam Azad to death, in a trial held in absentia. The prosecution of alleged war criminals from Bangladesh’s 1971 war that resulted in the country’s independence.
The International Crimes Tribunal-2 sentenced Abul Kalam Azad to death by hanging for genocide, murder, rape and other crimes committed more than 40 years ago during the war against Pakistan.
The trial was held in absentia because Azad, a popular Islamic televangelist, has been missing for about a year, since his charges were filed. Azad is believed to have fled the country.
While the country’s ruling party, the Awami League, has praised the verdict, critics say the commission has been politically motivated since it was created in 2010.
Azad's lawyer, Tajul Islam, who is defending nine accused war criminals, plans to appeal the verdict. He says the verdict was handed down on unchallenged evidence, and included unwanted comments against Azad’s Jamaat-e-Islami party. He accused the court of ignoring evidence presented by the defense, and called for a new trial.
"We have based so many arguments on law and facts that have been totally ignored in this judgment. This collusion of the chairman with the prosecutors and the witnesses, discredits the entire trial process," said Islam. "So, we think that the only option that remains is to hold the trial afresh."
International rights groups have condemned the trial for not adhering to international standards.
The Economist magazine recently obtained access to Skype conversations and email exchanges that indicate the court’s chief justice may have been leaking confidential information. Chief Justice Mohammed Nizamul Huq has since resigned.
Human Rights Watch's South Asia Analyst Tejshree Thapa says the email correspondences revealed by The Economist completely undermine the court’s independence.
Sam Zarifi, the Asia director for the International Commission of Jurists, says the court process has been so flawed, it raises the question of whether it might be best not to have a trial at all.
“Proving these charges, charges of crime against humanity, charges of rape as a war crime, charges of genocide, are actually quite complicated and need a lot of evidence and we didn't see those kinds of procedural safeguards at all," explained Zarifi. "This verdict actually doesn't really advance the cause of justice.”
He says the court has little hope of helping Bangladesh find reconciliation from the 1971 war, during which some three million people were killed.
Despite the international criticism, the trial has been wildly popular among the general population in Bangladesh.
It was a key issue in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s platform. But critics say it has resulted in the marginalization of the political opposition, with leaders detained, driven into exile, or sued.
Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, became an independent nation after the Liberation war of 1971. The nine-month war started when West Pakistan launched a military operation aimed at deterring the East from declaring independence. Previous attempts to prosecute those responsible for atrocities were thwarted, and many of the accused have fled abroad.
Shahriyar Kabir runs a group that has been lobbying for the war crimes tribunal and helps survivors cope with grief. He says the court's verdict has been so popular because everyone in Bangladesh was affected by the 1971 war.
"The Bangladesh genocide was ignored by the West, but it was a horrific genocide. Three million people were killed in the period of nine months. Those who committed genocide in 1971, the Islamist bigots, the collaborators of the Pakistani army, they were Jamaat-e-Islami Muslim leaders, they became very powerful in Bangladesh right now,” stated Kabir.
Delivering the verdict this week, Judge Obaidul Hasan said the impunity enjoyed by war criminals has “held back political stability.” There are 11 top opposition leaders accused of war crimes by the court. Nine are from the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami and the other two from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.