GREAT harm can be wrought if the line separating punishment from vengeance becomes blurred, making it all the more urgent to not just ensure that justice is done, but that it is also seen to be done. Unfortunately, Bangladesh stands poised on the brink of this misstep as regards the controversy that surrounds the trials taking place of people accused of having committed atrocities during the period of the 1971 war. The process of investigating the alleged abuses was initiated in 2010 by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed with opposition parties maintaining that the trials were being used as a political tool. The government denies this, but given that there are doubts that the proceedings meet international fair trial standards, the distrust remains. This latter point was underscored on Friday when Human Rights Watch, while urging the Bangladesh government to suspend the executions of two opposition leaders convicted of war crimes, said that “Justice and accountability for the terrible crimes committed during … [the] war are crucial, but trials need to meet international fair trial standards. … Unfair trials can’t provide real justice, especially when the death penalty is imposed.”
The two opposition leaders whose executions are being referred to here are Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, secretary-general of the Jamaat-i-Islami, and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, earlier a legislator from former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Both have been handed down the death penalty for war crimes and on Wednesday, the Bangladesh Supreme Court rejected their final appeal against their sentences, paving the way for their execution unless the president grants them clemency on the basis of their mercy petitions. For the convicted men, the death sentences ought to be suspended in the interests of humane treatment and the irrevocability of this penalty — which this newspaper has always opposed. But for the reputation of Bangladesh itself, it is important that the standards that prevail at these trials be drastically improved and the process be stripped bare of any vestige of political motivation.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2015