Bangladesh crimes tribunal aiding state takeover

In America and most other countries, defendants - regardless of the crime they are accused of committing - have the right to a fair and legitimate trial, and with it access to a robust defense.

Typically that includes allowing defense lawyers into the courtroom and, if their lawyers are foreign nationals, into the country.

As the defense counsel for the accused on trial before the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Bangladesh – a global sounding
court but one that is purely local – none of this has happened.

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I have been barred from entering the country along with the entirety of the defense team. Last time I attempted to enter to defend my clients I was stopped and detained at the airport and then deported.

The defendants – every single one of them a member of the political opposition to the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – were those who during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 supported Bangladesh remaining a province of Pakistan rather than becoming an independent country. America at the time supported this territorial integrity. Many thousands died during that war and there is considerable evidence atrocities were committed by both sides - by those that supported territorial integrity as well as by those who won independence: the heirs of those independence leaders include Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh and daughter of the country’s first President. The heirs of those who opposed independence are mainly part of the current political opposition. However, at the ICT only one side of the divide has been put on trial. The ICT and the trials before it are nothing short of a way of destroying the opposition and creating a one-party state in Bangladesh.

America at the time supported this territorial integrity. Many thousands died during that war and there is considerable evidence atrocities were committed by both those who supported territorial integrity as well as by the victors who won independence, of which PM Hasina is an heir. However, at the ICT only one side of the divide has been put on trial. The ICT and the trials before it are nothing short of a way of destroying the opposition and creating a one-party state in Bangladesh.

And what trials they have been. Defense witnesses have been abducted on the steps of the courthouse, with one later discovered in jail in
neighboring India by Human Rights Watch. The Economist magazine has revealed deep and ongoing collusion between judges, prosecutors and government ministers to serve death sentences on the accused before the trials were even over. A “star” witness for the prosecution has been caught, on video, admitting he took money for his testimony directly from associates of the Bangladeshi Prime Minister. The witness has denied he was the person in the video, but a U.S. voice recognition company has confirmed the person filmed was indeed the prosecution’s star witness.

The trials have also been universally and internationally condemned. Human Rights Watch – now themselves on trial in Bangladesh for daring to criticize the ICT – have said the Tribunal “violates international fair trial standards to which Bangladesh is a party”. The International Commission of Jurists – a global body of human rights lawyers – have said “there are serious procedure flaws at all stages: pre-trial release has been routinely and arbitrarily denied; witnesses have been abducted and intimidated; there have been credible allegations of collusion between the Government, prosecutors and judges”. Secretary of State John Kerry, The Foreign Secretary of Great Britain William Hague and the EU’s High Commissioner for External Affairs Catherine Ashton have all called for the death penalty against those accused to be halted. Despite all of this, the Tribunal has been allowed to continue.

Clearly blame for this situation must lie squarely with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her government. However, individuals such as Prosecutor Saiful Islam have been complicit in this dangerous travesty of a Tribunal. In his op-ed in The Hill he claims the trials are “open and transparent to the public with ample protections for the rights of the accused”, despite what all international experts have said to the contrary.

The Economist magazine recently quoted a western diplomat saying that Bangladesh’s government was conducting “A coup by installments” against its political opposition, of which the ICT is one of the ways they are achieving it. Therefore it is understandable that Prosecutor Islam needs to say publicly the trials have been free and fair when the government for which he works is conducting a political purge. Like the excuse of many a collaborator during the Second World War that they "were only following orders," had he not said the Tribunal was free and fair he too would be placed directly in the line of fire. But that’s what extremist regimes such as that in Bangladesh do to individuals: They make ordinary people publicists for the most unspeakable actions.

The Government of Bangladesh has in recent weeks been executing its political opposition, firing live rounds at them in the streets, and in
one incident dragging a political opponent from their bed in front of their family and assassinating them on the rooftop of their home. This
situation is becoming very dangerous indeed and one that is leading Bangladesh on a path fast and far away from democracy. US politicians should therefore treat with extreme caution any suggestion that the ICT is anything other than a vehicle for creating a totalitarian state in Bangladesh.

Cadman is an international human rights lawyer and defense counsel at the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal.