There has been some press comment, much of it misconceived, about an 'Inside Story' programme on Al Jazeera broadcast on 4 November, where I was interviewed along with Mofidul Huq (from the liberation war museum in Dhaka) and Toby Cadman (defence counsel, international lobbyist for the accused) about the International
Crimes Tribunals in Bangladesh.
Crimes Tribunals in Bangladesh.
The full TV programme can be seen here. However, I have extracted out the questions and answers involving me here in order to dispel any misrepresentation of what I had stated in the programme.
Q: (6.33 mins) Tony Cadman, there, saying that an urgent appeal is necessary. [David Bergman] what is your response about what has happened in court? And give us a sense of the feeling on street? We know that there are huge divisions over this issue.
A: It is a complex matter. First thing I think that one ought to be very aware is that these trials are popular within Bangladesh. I mean the opinion polls that have been done about them, show that the vast majority of people support the process of trials seeking the accountability for crimes committed in 1971. And although people do call the country divided, I don’t think it is really fair to say that. There has been a long standing demand from quite a large section of people in Bangladesh for these trials, and that demand has a lot of popularity through the country.
Q: Regardless of whether or not as Toby says the legal procedures have been flawed?
A: I think this actually is exactly the case. It is correct to say that from a fair trial prism,
there are significant concerns about the trials. Yet nonetheless you will not find a trial in Bangladesh that does meet international standards in any court in the country. So many people will think even though there are criticisms of these trials on these matters of due process, why should these particular individuals be treated any differently, and that is an important matter to keep in perspective.
Q (11:00 mins) David Bergman, I want to pick up that point [made by Mofidul Huq]. I mean it has taken such a long time for any sort of justice to be seen in the country, and I know there is a lot of anger on the streets that many of those perpetrators have been allowed to walk free, to live a normal life?
A: I think that is a very important issue to keep in mind when you think about these trials. Because, as Mofidul Huq has said, very serious crimes were committed in 1971. The numbers of death are disputed, but very large numbers, hundreds of thousands of people, the officials figures are 3 million, very large numbers. And the Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party did collaborate with the Pakistan military at that time and did support the fight against independence. Yet despite that over the years because of various issues relating to the way politics took place in the country, Jamaat-e-Islami was able to grow as a political party and became a significant actor in politics. So, forty years later there was a situation in the country where many of the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami ,who people believed had been involved in collaborating with the Pakistan military during 1971, were powerful politicians who seemed to be completely able to escape any possibility of accountability. And the joy that some people feel in relationship to the trial verdicts has to be seen within that context - that they have had to wait a long time to see the possibility of men who they believe were seriously involved in crimes during the independence war, to be brought to justice.
Q (19:47 mins): David, I want to pick up on the international issues raised by both of our guests, and talk to you about the sort of interference or the concerns raised by Turkey and Saudi Arabia at the moment, leveled at Sheikh Hasina , and the fact that she is going through this court process. What is the worry then, what sort of pressure that is being put upon her?
A: First, I think it is somewhat laughable for Saudia Arabia to be criticizing the Bangladesh criminal justice system. I am not an expert on the Saudia Arabian justice system but I don’t think it much better, at all better, in fact I am sure it is far worse, than the Bangladesh system.
There is clearly politics afoot here to the extent that it appears certain other muslim majority countries, muslim countries, feel that they need to put pressure on the Bangladesh government to, in someway affect the trial process, to bring it an end or bring it to an end that they feel it is acceptable. And the argument that you often hear being put by these countries who support that, is that ‘this is a completely political trial, that the government is out to get the opposition’. Now, Toby Cadman may well be right in certain respects, that politics has played an important part in this process, and to some extent that is unacceptable. But nonetheless, the people on trial are not on trial because they are political opponents of this regime, they are on trial but because there has been longstanding allegations against them for war crimes. They were members of the Jamaat or members of the student wing of the Jamaat. That party did collaborate with the Pakistan military. There was a force called the Al Badr which was a militia which is known to have assisted the Pakistan military in killing civilians. So the leaders of the Jamaat and the student wing o have a case to answer. The fact that they are now members of an opposition party is neither here nor there.
Q: David, do you think, this was an election promise made by Sheikh Hasina. Do you think it is has been worth it for her? There has been such enormous demonstrations on the street, we expect many more, many deaths last years, 500 people killed due to this process. Do you think it has been worth it for her and the country so far?
A: I think if we look at the politics of the issue in terms of the Awami League. What is important to recognise is that it was never completely clear that the Awami League, after the election with brought them into power in 2009, would actually hold tribunals. There had been in previous coupe of years significant campaigns to hold the trials. But Previously the Awami league when they had been in govenment did not hold trials when under considerable kind of pressure, so it is important to recognise that AL were to some extent forced into holding these trials. Perhaps they to some extent they thought at the time that it was particularly convenient for them to do so. Also I think they recognised that a significant part of their vote bank did want this level of accountability to take place, and I think these trials did politically stood her in good stead, and there is I think there is a segment of the country who support the Awami League solely.