Shortly before taking up his post as chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, US justice Robert Jackson said it would be better to shoot Nazi leaders out of hand than pervert the process of law by setting up a sham court. ‘You must put no man on trial under the forms of judicial proceeding, if you are not willing to see him freed if not proven guilty,’ he said.
The Nuremberg trial lived up to Jackson’s sentiment by acquitting (against the wishes of the Soviet judges) three of the defendants.
Few people expect acquittals at a war crimes trial that is under way now, in Bangladesh. A special court, the International Crimes Tribunal, was set up in 2010 to try individuals charged in connection with atrocities committed during the country’s violent struggle for independence from what was then West Pakistan, in 1971.
Anyone with memories of 1971, or who has been lucky enough to visit Bangladesh (especially the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka), will support the bringing to justice of those responsible for the deaths of up to three million people. Sadly, the tribunal set up to do the job is tainted with domestic politics.
Last week the chairman, Mohammed Nizamul Huq, resigned when a dossier of emails and telephone conversations came to light suggesting government interference.
The tribunal had just finished hearing its first case, that of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a senior figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami political party which in 1971 opposed independence and has been accused of murders and other atrocities in support of Pakistan. The leaked documents appear to show government ministers putting pressure on the chairman to speed up the proceedings and collusion between the government, prosecution counsel and judges.
His defence is now filing for a permanent stay of proceedings and full retrial, held under full international jurisdiction. ‘The government of Bangladesh has proven it has neither the will nor the ability to run these trials independently or impartially,’ saysbarrister Toby Cadman of Nine Bedford Row International, who is acting for all but one of the defendants, though he says he is currently barred from entering Bangladesh.
Cadman told me this week that without strong international pressure he feels the court will go ahead and convict and ‘rather frighteningly, apply the death penalty’.
Bangladesh is ridiculously under-reported in the British media, considering its size, and economic and family ties with the UK. But the rule of law there deserves our support.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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