Comment – Sayedee’s Conviction – a Travesty of Justice


Bangladesh’s much-criticised international war crimes tribunal (ICT) found the vice-president of Jamaat-e-Islami party Delwar Hossain Sayedee guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to death. The tribunal verdict has led to violent demonstrations and over 70 people have been killed with most deaths caused by the security forces using live ammunition against Jamaat protesters.  If the situation is not brought under control it could lead to a civil war.

Nine senior Jamaat leaders and two leaders from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are being prosecuted for alleged war crimes which took place 40 years ago. They are being prosecuted to fulfil the electoral promise of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s party Awami League (AL) during the last elections to bring to justice those responsible for war crimes during the 1971 independence war.

Since independence in 1971, all the accused have been living in Bangladesh and participating in politics there. Some of them have held high positions in the government. They did not flee the country for fear of being prosecuted for war crimes. In fact, the Awami League had an electoral understanding with the Jamaat in the 1996 elections. In the circumstances, the trials are perceived as politically motivated to break the alliance between BNP and the Jamaat and liquidate the latter.

A leaked cable from the US State Department seems to confirm this diabolical scheme. It states: “there is little doubt that hard-line elements within the ruling party [AL] believe that the time is right to crush Jamaat and other Islamic parties.” Recent amendment to the ICT Act to enable war crime charges to be brought against organisations is aimed at banning the Jamaat from politics.

The ICT trials have come under widespread international criticism for failing to observe international standards. The critics include the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Centre for Transnational Justice, the International Bar Association, the UK Bar Human Rights Committee, the US Ambassador at large for war crimes Stephen Rapp.

Human Rights Watch, commenting on the performance of the ICT, stated: “Glaring violations of fair trial standards became apparent in 2012 in the trials of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)…..serious flaws in the law and rules of procedure governing these trials have gone unaddressed, despite proposals from the US government and many international experts.”

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in their Opinions given in November 2011 and December 2012 have found the ICT’s refusal to grant bail to BNP and Jamaat leaders, and their continued detention, as being arbitrary and in violation of international law. Professor Ghulam Azam who is 90 years old and suffering from illness and not getting proper treatment in prison was repeatedly denied bail.

The tribunal ignored complaints by the defence team about police abducting a defence witness right at the door of the courthouse, and harassment of defence lawyers and witnesses. Written statements allegedly by witnesses were put in evidence without the makers being called to be cross-examined. The prosecutor misled the tribunal and falsely stated that the witnesses could not be found. When the defence produced logbooks which showed that the witnesses were in the government safe house the judge took no action against the prosecutor who was in contempt of court and, instead, admitted the documents.

It is now public knowledge that Sayedee’s conviction and sentence is the result of collusion between the government, the prosecutor, the ICT chairman Mohamed Nizamul Haque and a lawyer of Bengali origin living in Belgium Dr. Ahmed Ziauddin.

In December last year, The Economist received 17 hours of recorded Skype conversations and over 230 e-mails between Haque and Ziauddin which revealed direct government interference in the ICT proceedings. Political pressure has been applied on Haque to come out with verdicts fast. The Minister of law Shafique Ahmed promised that if he gave one verdict by December 2012 he would be promoted to the appellate division. Ziauddin was advising the prosecutor and Haque throughout the trial on the conduct of the case. He also arranged for one Raihan Rashid from the Bengali diaspora to prepare the structure of the judgment.

Haque resigned from the ICT panel hearing Sayedee’s case and was replaced by another judge after the release of his improper and illegal conversations and email with Ziauddin. The defence filed motions for retrial based on the improper conduct of the chairman of ICT but they were rejected arbitrarily, thus exposing its lack of impartiality.

None of the three judges hearing the case after Haque resigned had heard the full evidence given by witnesses and yet they found Sayedee guilty of the charges and sentenced him to death. On the improper conduct of the ICT judges, the Human Rights Watch commented:

“It would be highly irresponsible and unprofessional for a verdict to be delivered when none of the judges heard all the evidence and were unable to assess the credibility of key witnesses, particularly in trial involving 40-year old evidence and complex legal issues. Before the chair of the court resigned for improprieties only one judge had heard the totality of the evidence, and now even that one judge is gone. A new trial is the only way for the court to preserve its integrity.”

The prosecution of the Jamaat and BNP leaders is not aimed at doing justice to the victims of the independence war but to destroy Hasina’s political opponents. Her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in his wisdom, declared in the 1974 Simla agreement that, “with regard to the atrocities and destruction committed in Bangladesh in 1971, he wanted the people to forget the past and to make a fresh start, stating that the people of Bangladesh knew how to forgive.”

Hasina, her party, and its followers, while idolising him, have ignored his sensible advice which, if followed, would have led to national reconciliation, socio-economic progress and independent national institutions instead of the anarchy, violation of human rights, corrupt institutions and grinding poverty that prevail now.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest nations in the world. Over 70% of the population survive on less than $2 a day. Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI) ranking, just above Sub-Saharan Africa.  Corruption is pervasive and the judiciary is the most corrupt institution, according to Transparency International. Instead of focussing efforts on promoting national unity and wiping out poverty and corruption, she is creating deep divisions within Bangladesh society and further corrupting the judiciary to serve Awami League’s political objective of eliminating the opposition.

S.M. Mohamed Idris, Chairman – Citizens International