From transitional justice mechanism to monumental revenge: the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal sinks to new lows

The Bangladeshi International War Crimes Tribunal quickly became a stage for political interference and intimidation. With elections approaching, escalating tactics threaten to condemn the entire pursuit for justice.    

The Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has again been at the centre of scandal following the abduction of a defence witness by plain-clothes policemen last Monday. Shukho Ranjan Bali had been in the car of senior defence counsel, Mizanul Islam, along with other members of the defence counsel en route to the ICT on November 5th to testify for the accused Allama Delwar Hossain Sayedee. At the entrance of the tribunal, the car was stopped and uniformed police informed those inside that they had instructions to only admit designated defence lawyers. Meanwhile, men in plain clothes approached the car and abducted Bali, amidst protests from Islam and others, while the uniformed policemen merely looked on unperturbed and unmoved by calls for aid. The plain clothes men identified themselves as members of the ‘Detective Branch’ and proceeded to bundle away the distressed Bali into a van of Bangladesh’s infamous Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a body condemned by Human Rights Watch for extra-judicial killings and torture.

In response to Bali’s abduction, chief defence counsel, Barrister Abdur Razzaq, petitioned the tribunal to address the issue and take due measures, particularly given the likelihood of the prosecuting body’s complicity in the abduction. Bali had initially been enlisted as a prosecution witness who failed to appear in court, and the prosecution had presented what they stated was a written testimony from him in absentia. Soon after, however, Bali appeared in the media stating “I did not want to give any false witness. Just I have to tell the truth what I know.” Thereafter he decided to become a witness for the defence, the second such witness to do so.

Rather than immediately ordering an impartial investigation, the court asked the prosecution itself to look into the allegations and later accepted its statement that the event was entirely false. At this, the defence counsel boycotted the tribunal for a day in protest. In response, the Tribunal held the defence in contempt of court, barring the entry of defence counsel, Tajul Islam, into court until November 22. Mizanul Islam also attempted to file a complaint with the relevant police agency, Shahbagh Police Station, but the branch refused to file the complaint or give an explanation for their refusal. Meanwhile, the prosecution has accused the defence of propaganda, paradoxically claiming Mr Bali is hiding due to intimidation from the defence counsel. None of the many who witnessed the abduction – from the police to the lawyers and driver – have been questioned. Amidst the furore, and largely ignored by the Bangladeshi media, the chairman of the ICT, Justice Nizamul Huq, made the incredible declaration that no member of the ICT defence counsel will be permitted to see their clients, the accused, anymore.

It reads like a particularly dramatic and implausible run of a poorly scripted soap opera, yet these events are real. How a court can prohibit the entry of witnesses is anyone’s guess, yet the abduction and events that followed beggar belief. It is a particularly worrying matter that Bali, now ostensibly in the custody of RAB, has been missing for over a week. The missing witness has become the latest victim of a major trend in abduction and forced disappearances that has plagued Bangladesh under the Awami League-led ruling regime.

In response to the abduction, Britain’s Lord Avebury issued a statement on Thursday, stating “Knowing the fate of others who have been abducted by RAB in the past, if Bali has come to any harm, command responsibility will rest on senior law enforcement officials, and on those who were in charge of the Tribunal’s security.” Furthermore, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on the Bangladesh authorities to urgently investigate the case. Brad Adams, Asia Director for HRW stated, “An allegation as serious as the abduction of a witness deserves prompt action, and a thorough and impartial investigation. Instead of ordering an independent investigation, the court asked a party in the case to investigate, and then blithely accepted its answer. This is an unacceptable way to respond to an allegation of abduction. Where is Shukho Ranjon Bali?” Meanwhile, David Bergman, a journalist closely following the ICT who has been investigating the abduction, has provided a detailed account with pictures of the abduction.

Many are now concerned for the safety and survival of Bali. That he is a victim of and witness to the atrocities of the 1971 war, having lost his brother in the conflict, brings into particular relief the brand of “justice for victims” the ICT claims to seek. In this tribunal, victims of war swiftly become victims of the court depending on which side they represent. The case may be seen as part of a larger campaign of intimidation against the defence and its witnesses. With the abduction and concerns for the life of Bali, whether further witnesses will show willingness to come forward is doubtful, with worrying consequences for due process and justice.

The abduction comes hard on the heels of the ICT’s recent imposed cap on the number of witnesses the defence counsel are permitted to present in the case of the accused, Professor Ghulam Azam. Professor Azam, who turned 90 this week, has been held in custody since January this year. Repeated requests for bail on the grounds of his age and frailty have been dismissed by the tribunal. In what seems remarkable for any court, following a request by the prosecution team, who had already completed the examination of their own 16 witnesses, the judges limited the defence counsels witnesses to 12, four less than that presented by the prosecution, and placed no similar cap on the latter. The judges’ consistent and blatant pandering to the prosecution in this manner is a troubling indication of the questionable impartiality of the ICT.

Meanwhile, the media has continued its role in largely colluding with the state to minimise awareness and critique. State media, including privately run news channels and newspapers, most of which are subservient or fearful of the ruling regime, have maintained a telling silence over the ICT chair’s statement preventing the meeting of defence lawyers with their respective clients. The media critical of the tribunal or the regime have faced severe intimidation, not dissimilar to that experienced by defence witnesses. Mir Quasem Ali, owner of Diganta Media, an organisation critical of the Awami League-led government and the ICT in particular, has been arrested and locked away. This is not the only instance either; in 2010 the editor of newspaper, Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, was arrested and tortured in custody while his publication was shut down for publishing articles accusing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son of corruption. Although Mahmudur Rahman was later released and Amar Desh resumed, the intimidation of Diganta Media, and the continued harassment of journalists across the country reflect that the regime has not changed tack. 

The recent increasing frequency of such activities may highlight a tension within the ICT as the Bangladesh elections approach and the future of the ruling regime becomes uncertain. Desperate to secure a prize while the regime upholding it remains in office, or at the very least produce desired results, the tribunal appears intent on spurring on legal proceedings and recklessly eliminating any obstructions in its path.

On the same day Bali’s abduction took place International NGO No Justice Without Peace issued a statement calling on the Bangladesh authorities to both bring an end to the death penalty, which the accused at the ICT may face if convicted, and ensure the strict observance of due process. The statement highlighted the necessity of doing so not only for justice to be served for the victims and country, but for the credibility of the court to withstand the scrutiny of history, not create the potential for future unjust exploitation as current procedure predicts.

The Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal has continued to commit subversion and malpractice to achieve what such events increasingly expose to be the pre-planned vengeance of a charade tribunal. As witnesses are eliminated, critical media locked away and state media fully in sync with a whirring propaganda machine, the intended direction of the tribunal is clear. To prevent a grave miscarriage of justice and its repercussions, the international community must now, more than ever, intervene.

About the author

Mahin Khan resides in England and is an avid follower of British and Bangladeshi politics.