Bangladesh’s Chowdhury was prosecuted fairly

The prosecution of war crimes is always a difficult and challenging process. In Bangladesh, the International Crimes Tribunals (ICT) have had the responsibility of sifting through mountains of evidence of crimes committed against the Bangladeshi people during its war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971. The ICT has conducted many trials since it was established in 2009. Defendants have been found both guilty and not guilty of the crimes they’ve been accused of. Evidence, both oral and documentary, makes all the difference in these fair, open and transparent proceedings.

But when convictions have been reached, critics of the Bangladeshi government have routinely offered the same tired criticism. They have claimed that the process was flawed, that standards of a fair trial were not followed and that the convictions should be thrown out. These are political arguments not based in fact. The convictions handed down by the ICT BD are the result of comprehensive process subject to layers of appeals.

{mosads}The conviction and subsequent death sentence for Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury is among those being questioned by critics. (See opinion column in The Hill’s Congress blog.) They have asserted that the court’s decision should be reversed. They are wrong for many reasons. Chowdhury has eluded responsibility for his crimes for more than four decades because of his family’s financial and political connections. However, his political affiliations had nothing to do with his prosecution and ultimate conviction. They were based on his crimes and the facts surrounding them.

In 2013, he was found guilty of nine out of 23 charges. These included killing about 200 civilians, collaborating with the Pakistan Army to kill and torture unarmed people, looting of valuables, the torching of houses and other properties and persecuting people on religious and political grounds.

The trial was both thorough and complete. Chowdhury was granted an extensive defense as all defendants are. At trial, he presented an alibi that was rejected time and again. He claimed that he was in Pakistan at the time of his crimes, but the ICT found that he was in Bangladesh during the time period in which the crimes occurred.

This was established through the testimony of 14 eyewitnesses, some of whom survived his torture personally and identified him in court. Another key witness was a doctor who treated him after he was injured in a 1971 bomb attack inside Bangladesh, which was reported in The Daily Pakistan and in the Special Branch Report of the Pakistan Police. None of these pieces of evidence were refuted by the defense. The Tribunal thus rejected the alibi presented by the defense and found that Chowdhury not only did commit but was available to commit a series of heinous acts.

In its conviction of Chowdhury, the ICT recommended the sentence of death. Chairman Justice ATM Fazle Kabir noted: “We are of the unanimous view that the accused deserves the highest punishment for committing such crimes that tremble the collective conscience of mankind.” Bangladesh still recognizes the death penalty as the highest mode of punishment considering the gravity of the offence. But that was not the end of Chowdhury’s legal process. Bangladesh’s ICT is the world’s only international crimes tribunal that allows those convicted to appeal their verdicts. Chowdhury was allowed to appeal his death sentence to the country’s Supreme Court. Thus far, the Supreme Court has overturned two ICT death sentences and changed them to sentences of life in prison. Chowdhury’s sentence was upheld and will likely be carried out later this month if not overturned in the pending review.

No one should have any doubt that the evidence against him was strong during his trial and that he was granted many rights common to defendants during the process. These included the right to be heard, to defend, protection from self-incrimination, to offer alibis and, as stated previously, unlike in other international crimes tribunals, the right to appeal. The burden of proof in ICT trials rests squarely on the prosecution and must extend beyond a reasonable doubt. What’s more, the proceedings of the ICT are open to the public and the media. Anyone can attend these sessions and report on them.

International experts have recognized the credibility of the tribunal. The former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large on Global Criminal Justice, Mr. Stephen Rapp, expressed his satisfaction with the overall standard of the trials when he last visited Bangladesh in August 2014.

The Bangladesh ICT has done important, laborious work. There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. At the same time, the rights of the accused must be respected and observed at all times. The ICT has struck such a balance and did so in the case of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury.

Afroz and Baul are prosecutors at the war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh.


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