Sunday, November 15, 2015

What Amnesty International got right ... and wrong

On 27 October, Amnesty Internernational published a press release concerning the trials and appeal process of war crimes accused and now convicted Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid whose executions, barring an unexpected change of mind from the appellate division that is due to hear their review applications on 17 November, are now imminent.

The press release received a lot of attention in Bangladesh - but unfortunately for Amnesty, not the kind of attention it sought.

The spokesperson for the Ganarjagaran Mancha, Imran Sarkar said that the statement:
"proves that Amnesty is not a human rights organisation anymore; they are against humanity, it is an organisation backing militants"
He also said:
“Human rights do not prick Amnesty International's conscience when the US bombs and kills people, including women and children, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria ... Now they have sided with the US’s ally Pakistan and demanding release of Razakars and those who are against the Liberation War. They have issued statement for this,”
In a letter to Amnesty, the Sector Commanders Forum stated that:
"Amnesty International has never recognised the right of the victims for justice, but always highlighted the rights of the accused in the dock”
At a press conference, the ICT prosecutor Tureen Afroze (see link above) said that :
“Amnesty International only considered war criminals as human beings and were oblivious about the victims.”
She is also quoted as saying that:
 "anyone demanding that freedom fighters be put on trial was speaking the language of war criminals."
The Prime Minister also commented on the statement suggesting that the organization had been corrupted:
"Surely, they [AI] have got a hefty amount of something for which they’re preparing such reports, or else, why they would do this."
She also referred to the part of Amnesty's statement which stated that“Serious crimes were also committed by the pro-independence forces, but no one has been investigated or brought to justice for them”. To this the prime minister said:
‘This is not acceptable to us that they will [speak] against our freedom fighters’
There have also been much very critical commentary about the Amnesty article in the media.

The standard response to all criticism of the tribunal.
These kind of criticisms are the pretty standard responses in Bangladesh from many (though not all) war-crimes tribunal campaigners* towards any person or organization writing or publishing something critical about the war crimes trials: generally they are labelled as pro-war criminal, pro-jamaat, and accused of taking money from war criminals.

It is also often suggested (though I am not sure that it has been suggested here) that there is some kind of international conspiracy afoot involving that person or organization.

None of these allegations are based on any evidence.

Rarely, of course, do those who make the accusations try and engage directly with the substance behind the criticisms. 

It does not seem to matter to many of these accusers how eminent or obviously independent are the organizations (or individuals) making the criticisms. Amnesty International has now fallen into the same category as other now demonized organizations -  The Economist magazine, The New York Times, and Human Rights Watch - which have all been subjected to similar accusations.

There does not seem to be any appreciation that one can support justice for those who were injured, raped and killed during the 1971 war, as well as, and at the same time, seeking trials that are fair - which is exactly the work of human rights organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, not just in Bangladesh but in many parts of the world.

And of course there is the issue of accuracy.

The comments made by Imran Sarkar suggesting that Amnesty does not care about human rights in the rest of the world (see his quotes above) are just as demonstrably inaccurate as many of the criticism made by the prosecutors against Human Rights Watch. 

So, for example, when prosecutors brought a contempt of court action against Human Rights Watch, they accused the organization of not writing any statements critical of Saudi Arabia, when just in the previous year, a look at the Amnesty website showed that they had published 18 press releases about human rights in Saudi Arabia. (And this was just one of the many inaccurate or misleading comments made about the organization by the prosecutors.)

And similarly, Imran Sarkar now seems to be accusing Amnesty of siding with the United States in committing human rights violations and of making no comments critical of the the country in relation to their military activities in 'Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria'. However a glance at the Amnesty website would show the inaccuracy of such a statement is. (see here and here, for example about Afghanistan just in the last couple of months: and Syria this month).

There is of course a basic hypocrisy in the position of those now attacking Amnesty International. When the Awami League was (and presumably one day will be) in opposition, and when those who are now critical of Amnesty are the subject of human rights violations by the government, they will of course turn to these same human rights organizations, and will congratulate them on issuing press releases critical of the government that is then in power.

People have every right to criticize organizations like Amnesty or individuals whom they disagree with concerning the trials. But it should be done so without making baseless allegations which often impute motives and question integrity.

Background: Amnesty International's Previous Criticisms of the Tribunal
Prior to the recently published press release, Amnesty International had issued 5 press releases and 2 urgent actions relating to the International Crimes Tribunal.

It did not issue its first press release on the subject until February 2013, three years after the establishment of the tribunal, and that related to concerns about the attacks against pro-Shahbag journalists and bloggers.

The remaining 6, all related to the sentencing of death of accused or their impending executions - and the focus of all of them was the imposition of the death penalty itself.

In all of them - different to what the Sector Commanders Forum suggests - Amnesty makes clear their support for the process of accountability and justice for the victims.

However 5 of the 6 releases did also contain some critical commentary about the tribunal. (The only one that did not was published immediately after the conviction and sentencing of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury).

The critical comments set out in the five are set out below. In summary, Amnesty has criticized certain actions as: 'incompatible with Bangladesh's international human rights obligations', 'in violation of international law',  'defying human rights laws', 'violated international fair trial standards', 'irregularities in the proceedings', 'allegations of unfair trials'  and 'intense politicization'.
  • 17 Sept 2013:  Death sentence without right of judicial appeal defies human rights law In relation to the death sentence imposed by the appellate division on Quader Molla: “We are very concerned about the Supreme Court’s ruling and the apparent relentless effort by the government to ensure that Mollah could be put to death." .... The death sentence was handed down by the highest court in the country, giving Mollah no chance to appeal. The imposition of the death sentence without the possibility of appeal is incompatible with Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights law. “Imposing a death sentence without the right of judicial appeal defies human rights law."
  • 10 Dec 2013: 'Urgent action: Imminent execution - opposition party member': 'On 17 September 2013, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court overturned Abdul Quader Mollah’s life sentence issued by the ICT and sentenced him to death, in violation of international law. ...The imposition of the death sentence without the possibility of appeal is incompatible with Bangladesh’s obligations under international human rights law. Multiple appeals against death sentences, as well as a final review of the highest court ruling on them, are available to prisoners sentenced to death by other courts in Bangladesh. This is the first known case of a prisoner sentenced to death directly by the highest court in Bangladesh, and the first known death sentence in Bangladesh with no right of appeal. 
  • 8 April 2014: Urgent Action: President must stop imminent execution: "Bangladeshi civil society, Amnesty International and other international bodies have welcomed the government’s move to end the longstanding impunity in Bangladesh for serious human rights violations in 1971. However, most observers including Amnesty International have expressed concern over how the proceedings before the ICT violated international fair trial standards. There were also irregularities in the proceedings, for instance, the court did not allow the defence to challenge the credibility of prosecution witnesses. 
  • 24 October 2014: Death penalty will not bring justice for crimes during independence war: In relation to the death penalty imposed against Motiur Rahman Nizami: 'The ICT has faced allegations of unfair trials from rights groups since it was established – complaints echoed by Nizami’s defence team during the trial.'
  • 3 Nov 2014: Fresh death sentences shows urgent need to end executions: Following the sentencing by the ICT of two men to death, it stated inter alia, that '“The outcome of ICT proceedings have become intensely politicized.'

What Amnesty got right and wrong
Amnesty did get things wrong in the recent press release - however were they not to have made these 'mistakes', their press release would in all likelihood have resulted in a statement that was more critical of the Tribunal - and perhaps an even greater level of attacks by those now criticizing Amnesty.

Here is what they got wrong.

1. 'Serious flaws': In the past Amnesty has spoken critically about the tribunal (see above), but in this press statement they say that  'serious flaws' occurred 'in their trial and appeal processes.' This language is arguably more serious than language used in the past and therefore  the press release should have backed up its position with some clear examples of the 'serious flaws' it consider existed. Whilst, the press release does set out one criticism for each of the cases, they are not enough to substantiate their accusation of 'serious flaws' (see below).

Assuming Amnesty does have enough substantive concerns about the trials to argue that there are 'serious flaws' - for example they may have wanted to bring up the issue of witnesses in the case of Chowdhury - then it does needs to set these out clearly so people understand that their conclusion has a clear and substantive basis

Of course, had it done so, this would not have made the press release any better appreciated in Bangladesh, and could well have made the organization subject to even greater criticism! But the press release would then have greater objective legitimacy.

2. 'Serious flaws in chowdhury's appeal': In relation to Chowdhury, the statement set out one concern ago this particular trial. Is says:
Salauddin Quader Chowdhury's defence team highlighted serious flaws in his appeal hearing. In one instance, the Supreme Court failed to dismiss the statement of a witness known as “PW-6”. The witness testified that a person who could corroborate his statement was dead when in fact the individual was very much alive and had even submitted a signed affidavit to the court to prove it.
There are some concerns about this paragraph.

First, this paragraph does not make sense unless more context is provided. What this paragraph is referring to is one particular offense against Chowdhury, where there was a single eye witness (PW6) alleging that Chowdhury committed this crime. According to the evidence of this particular witness in court after the crimes took place, he took shelter at the house of a person, whom he said he thought was now dead. This person in fact turned out to be alive, and this person subsequently gave an affidavit to the defense stating that the testimony given by the witness was untrue, and that he was in fact in India and never came to his house. This is significant as it raises questions about the credibility of the witness.

The significance of this statement, from Amnesty's perspective, should have been set out.

Secondly, whilst in relation to the particular offense in question, Amnesty's concern may be substantive, the press statement does not make clear that this criticism does not concern any of the four offenses for which Chowdhury received the death sentence - but for an offense where he received a sentence of imprisonment. So, even assuming that Amnesty's criticism was legitimate, it does not engage with any of the four cases for which he did receive the death sentence.

By failing to mention this, Amnesty's statement was rather misleading. And it allows one to ask the question: What about the other 8 offenses for which he was convicted, including the 4 for which he received the death penalty?

3. In relation to Mujahid's case, Amnesty states:
Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed’s appeal to the Supreme Court failed to dismiss the prosecution’s claim that he had instigated his subordinates to commit human rights abuses, when no subordinates had either been identified or testified on record.
If Amnesty considers this to be a flaw in the trial, it needs to explain why that is the case. Has it been shown necessary in other trials involving similar offenses against a leader of an alleged death squad for 'subordinates to be identified or testified on record'? And is there case law that supports their position? If this is Amnesty's position, then they need to set their position out much more clearly.

4. 'Immunity to pro-Independence forces': The press release states that 'Serious crimes were also committed by the pro-independence forces, but no one has been investigated or brought to justice for them.' 

Amnesty has never mentioned this point before in all its previous press releases, so it is certainly odd that they lobbed this line into this press releases without any context (mentioning for example, the issue of immunity provided) or any example of the alleged 'serious crimes that they they claim independent forces have been investigated.

There have been reports of massacres of Biharis at the beginning and end of the war (see this AFP story, for example), and of course since the second world war trials (that took place 70 years ago) all modern international tribunals do engage with crimes committed both sides of the conflict. If Amnesty wanted to make this point about liberation fighters not being prosecuted, since it had never raised this matter in all of its previous press releases, it should have provided material to substantiate its position - and it should have done this in a separate report or press release.

5. Other death sentences: In recent months there have a number of high profile death sentences imposed by the ordinary courts against individuals in Bangladesh, but Amnesty has not commented about these. Whilst, the International Crimes Tribunal is extremely high profile with international dimensions, and does involve international crimes and certainly justifies attention by Amnesty, it looks odd that Amnesty, as a international human rights organization, does not comment on other death sentences imposed in Bangladesh.


* I would certainly of course put myself into a category of those supporting trials against those alleged to have committed war crimes - but in Bangladesh the category of 'war-crimes tribunal campaigners'   has now come to mean those who support execution for all alleged war criminals, and who appear unconcerned about issues relating to the fairness of the trials.

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