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Professor Ghulam Azam: a flawed conviction and miscarriage of justice

On the basis of a flawed trial bereft of substantial evidence, my father has now been sentenced to 90 years in prison. The Bangladeshi people must decide whether justice for crimes past is really being acheived for a better, more cohesive Bangladesh.

Salman Al-Azami
17 July 2013

Yesterday, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of Bangladesh convicted my father, Professor Ghulam Azam, the 90 year old ex-leader of the political party Bangladesh Jamaat-i-Islami (BJI), sentencing him to 90 years in prison. The ICT was established with the commendable aim of meting out justice for crimes committed during Bangladesh’s War of Independence in 1971. However the trials have been deeply flawed, with this latest conviction being but the latest glaring example.

Bangladesh was recognised as an independent state in 1971 following a war which split the erstwhile state of Pakistan, of which Bangladesh was the eastern wing. The conflict resulted in terrible atrocities being committed.

During the war, my father wanted to maintain the unity and integrity of the state in which he and his compatriots lived at the time. He did not foresee a positive future for a Bangladesh made independent with Indian help, believing the nation would be under Indian dominance. However, he had no sympathy for the brutality of the Pakistan army and frequently spoke out against their acts. He was also against the atrocities committed by pro-independence fighters. His calls were for a political solution over a military one.

Following the war, due to the confusion attendant to civil wars, it proved difficult to prosecute and punish those believed to have collaborated with the Pakistan army, and most of the accused were later released under a general amnesty. Pakistani prisoners of war, mainly military men, were first detained to stand trial for war crimes, then repatriated without trial.

Forty years later, the Awami League government has whipped up a frenzy against carefully selected alleged ‘collaborators,’ who they have now decided to tarnish with allegations of war crimes. All key defendants are leading lights of the political opposition. Hence it is understandable that the ICT is widely considered to be a politically motivated tribunal.

BJI is seen to be a kingmaker in Bangladesh elections, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is the main opposition party. Meanwhile, senior members of the ruling party alleged to have been wartime collaborators remain beyond reproach. Major international bodies have critiqued the trials, which have also been marred by the abduction of a defence witness by police at the court gates. Leaked Skype conversations, reported by The Economist, exposed collaboration between judges, the prosecution, and government ministers, among many other irregularities.

Ghulam Azam was arrested in January 2012, and charged with several allegations relating to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal has assigned command responsibility to Azam, alleging he had de facto control over the Pakistani army. This is clearly ludicrous. Azam, a civilian and at the time, a minor politician, never held any responsibility or position within the authoritarian Pakistani military or government. He has also been accused of directing local auxiliary forces of the Pakistani military, forces that in fact took orders from the military alone.

Prof Azam had a position in the Central Peace Committee of Dhaka, but as such, he did not commission any act of violence, nor has the tribunal been able to produce any evidence to show he did in their judgment.

The prosecution has tried to suggest that some of Prof Azam’s statements during the war constituted incitement to war crimes. Yet, they have, by their own admission, been unable to provide any evidence that his statements, which were about the unity of Pakistan and had nothing to do with attacking civilians, led to any atrocities. In contrast, he made several statements against the Pakistan army’s brutality, but due to media censorship imposed by the authorities at the time, they were not published.

During the verdict hearing Tribunal Chairman Justice AKM Fazle Kabir admitted "The documents which the prosecution have submitted as evidence were not adequate,” and that “the prosecution did not really provide us with much.” He further stated that the reason the verdict was delayed was due to this inadequacy of evidence, such that the judges themselves had to conduct investigations of their own. Justice Kabir went on to add, “But we are still not too satisfied with the documents we were able to collect.” The sheer irregularity of a judge investigating and seeking evidence against a defendant, and doing so after the actual case has been closed, is astounding and speaks volumes of the nature of the trial.

Kabir also noted that “There are no allegations that [Azam] was physically present at any crime scene. And secondly, there are no allegations that he actively directed the commission of war crimes.” He admitted that "This case is different from others. The accused was never present in any account of atrocities.” Nonetheless, the judges of the Tribunal have seen fit to convict Prof Azam regardless.

Azam’s supporters have since come out in protest on the streets, both on Monday and today. My father is a man of peace and we have insisted that his supporters practice their legitimate and democratic right to protest this injustice in a peaceful manner. Nonetheless, one is fully conscious of the trigger-happy Bangladesh police who have brutally suppressed protests in the past, peaceful or not. Already several protesters have been killed by security forces and pro-government thugs. We condemn this and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.  

Such unrest is symbolic of the growing divisions and instability in the country, provoked and exacerbated by the ICT and its clearly biased convictions. The country is growing increasingly polarised; those influenced by the sustained propaganda campaign against Ghulam Azam and his fellow defendants are pitted against those who have known, worked with, learned from and revere them. With the next ICT verdict, of senior BJI leader Ali Ahsan Mujahid, scheduled today (Wednesday) one can only predict that instability will increase unless there is intervention to see true justice is done. I call on the international community to lead this intervention, by ensuring that the appeals process at least is conducted with international supervision.

On the basis of this flawed trial bereft of substantial evidence, my father has now been sentenced to 90 years in prison. At this frail age, away from family and friends, Prof Azam will be wondering whether he will live to see justice done. Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi people must wonder whether justice for crimes past is really being achieved for a better and cohesive Bangladesh. The reality is quite the opposite.

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