The New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday called upon the Bangladesh government to halt the imminent executions of war crime convicted Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mujaheed and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury.“The authorities should immediately suspend the death sentences of Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mujahid of the Jamaat-e-Islam and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of BNP pending an independent and impartial review of their cases,” the HRW said in a statement.
The statement came two days after the Supreme Court rejected the review petitions of Mujaheed and Chowdhury upholding its earlier judgments and in the wake of all preparations taken by the authorities to execute their death sentence.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected the review petitions of Mujahid and Chowdhury despite serious fair trial concerns surrounding their convictions. Both men were convicted of alleged war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence in trials before the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).
“Justice and accountability for the terrible crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence are crucial, but trials need to meet international fair trial standards,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Unfair trials can’t provide real justice, especially when the death penalty is imposed.”
The statement said the government assurances that it would adopt recommendations from the US government, Human Rights Watch, and others to improve the proceedings and amend the law have yet to be fulfilled.
According the HRW statement, Stephen Rapp, the former US ambassador for war crimes, who has long advised the government to make changes to ensure fair trials, “spoke out this week on the miscarriage of justice” in the cases of Mujaheed and Chowdhury.
The HRW opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty, the statement said, adding: “Bangladesh should join with the many countries already committed to the United Nations General Assembly’s December 18, 2007 resolution calling for a moratorium on executions and a move by UN member countries toward abolition of the death penalty.”
It said the death sentences against Mujaheed and Chowdhury follow a disturbing pattern from previous ICT cases. In December 2013, Abdul Quader Mollah was hanged following hastily enacted retrospective legislation prohibited by international law. Another accused, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, was convicted despite credible allegations of the abduction by government forces of a key defense witness from the grounds of the courthouse, with the ICT refusing to order an independent investigation into the charge. Mohammed Kamaruzzaman was hanged in April 2015 even though witnesses and documents were arbitrarily limited by the courts and inconsistent prior and subsequent statements of prosecution witnesses were not allowed into evidence.
The trials of both Mujaheed and Chowdhury have been marred by similar complaints, with arbitrary limitations on witnesses and documents. Mujaheed’s lawyers submitted 1500 names of defense witnesses. The court acted reasonably in refusing to consider all 1500, but acted unreasonably by ordering that only three witnesses could testify for the defense.
The court did not identify the most relevant witnesses; instead, it chose this number arbitrarily. Mujaheed was sentenced to death for instigating his subordinates to commit abuses, although no subordinates testified or were identified. Shortly before the hearing on the review petition, one of his lawyers had to go into hiding following a raid on his house and the arrest of another defense counsel in a related case.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a party, affords the accused the right “to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his or her behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him or her.”
“Treating the prosecution and defense equally is a basic fair trial principle, but the ICT has routinely ignored that principle in its seeming eagerness to convict the accused,” Adams said. “The accused in all these cases were allowed a minuscule fraction of witnesses, counsel were regularly harassed and persecuted, defense witnesses faced physical threats, and witnesses were denied visas to enter the country to testify.”
Trials before the ICT, including those of Mujahid and Chowdhury, have been replete with violations of the right to a fair trial. The ICT has fundamental flaws because of article 47(A) of the constitution, which states, “This Article further denies any accused under the ICT Act from moving the Supreme Court for any remedies under the Constitution, including any challenges as to the unconstitutionality of Article 47(A).”
The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has said that “in cases of trials leading to the imposition of the death penalty, scrupulous respect of the guarantees of fair trial is particularly important” and that any death penalty imposed after an unfair trial would be a violation of the right to a fair trial.
“Bangladeshis are rightly demanding justice for the atrocities in the liberation war,” Adams said. “But delivering justice requires fairness and adherence to the highest standards, particularly when a life is at stake.”