Saturday, 9 February 2013

A Thousand Words for Farce Part 1 : The Trial

[Disclaimer: This will post views that will most likely oppose yours. If you have a problem with that, and will get your panties in a bunch after reading this and proceed to swear at me mindlessly, stop reading.]

Flashback to 1971. Pakistan and the then East Pakistan are at war. Bangladesh has declared independence and it's nine month struggle towards that goal is ongoing. On the side of the Pakistani soldiers are some collaborators, terming themselves shanti committees (peace committees). These peace committees are Bangladeshis who want a united Pakistan. They are Muslim. And before someone starts saying this is me ranting about religion, no. Hindu-Muslim divides were the basis on which Pakistan and India separated. These shanti committees were against the independence of Bangladesh as the war was about language and oppression and they viewed this as fighting Muslim brothers. The shanti committees carried out heinous crimes. They murdered, raped and ordered complete annexes of villages. For 40 odd years, they got away scot free. Hell they even had political stands as the fundamentalist political party Jamaat-E-Islami, making ministers and leaders of the collaborators of the Pakistani army. The current govt., after screeching about it for years, finally took it upon themselves to bring the war criminals to justice. And so, various leaders (including former ministers) of Jamaat and BNP, the main opposition party who were in coalition with Jamaat, were rounded up and brought to trial in front of the newly formed International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The International Crimes Tribunal may have International in the name but it's a wholly national matter.

Mass protests have erupted after the ICT delivered it's second verdict. The first, of Abul Kalam Azad, was a death sentence. The second one was not. Kader Mollah got off sentenced to life in prison. After that, if you'll excuse my French, shit hit the fan. Or actually, things were starting to boil even before that. Jamaat had called hartals (strikes) multiple times before the verdict and at one point, even threatened civil war. After this verdict, they went quiet. But what no one anticipated was the uproar of the general populace. Thousands flocked to Shahbagh, which has now been termed "Projonmo Chottor" (Generation Circle) after a brief stint as Shahbagh Square. They've been there since the day of the verdict. They say they'll stay there till the sentence is changed to a death sentence. When I went there on Wednesday, the first thing I saw was an ominous effigy, hanging silently from the traffic lights. In the main circle, speeches, chants and songs sound out (since then, they've added microphones and speaker systems), Some of these chants included "Kader Mollah jobai chai" (I want the slaughter of Kader Mollah) and the crowd favourite, "faashi chai" (I want a hanging).

Not the effigy I was talking about, couldn't find a picture of that, but you get the point.

Now as to my standpoint on this. I have never advocated capital punishment. I still do not. I never will. That's just me. I cannot under any circumstance bring myself to go there and scream "faashi chai". In fact, what I saw at Shahbagh repulsed me. Bloodlusted animals. That is what we've become in that square.

Let me explain further; the ICT is a farce (and this is a word I shall use often). I'll break up why the ICT is a farce into three parts.

1) The judiciary is not independent. It claims to be but come on, Bangladeshis know better than that. And there's a certain Economist article which seems to suggest my accusation might be right. Govt. pressure was definitely there on the tribunal. Whether they caved to it or not, is another issue and I will not say for sure they did.

2) The evidence is farcical. Hell, they're lucky they got a decision at all. Most of what happened in these courts was hearsay. Hearsay. How does hearsay EVER have any weight in a court of law? There were "eye-witnesses" sure. Most contradicted themselves by giving different versions of their stories on the stand and in the interview with the Investigation Officer. The others were unreliable, mostly Awami League (the ruling govt.) supporters. That is of course not to say their statements should not be counted. As eye witnesses they are the key, heck, the only pieces of evidence in a trial 40 years overdue. But if this were a court adhering to international standards, yeah, no. Nowhere near sufficient evidence.

3) And speaking of international standards, the ICT was nowhere near it. When the foreign minister came out after the verdict of Abul Kalam Azad and said that the trial met "the requirements of fair trial in compliance with the standards invoked in other trials of international crimes committed around the globe and historically", it was laughable. Witness intimidation was rampant, the number of defence witnesses were randomly curtailed, summons were not given out for defence witnesses, defence cases closed before they got the chance to summon a witness, etc. One witness was even abducted outside the courtroom. Forget international standards, this doesn't even live up to Bangladeshi standards.

Lets assume that the ICT did resist govt. pressure. According to a friend, who's father is a judge at ICT-2 (the court where Kader Mollah was tried), Kader Mollah was not tried for first degree murder whereas Abul Kalam Azad, or as he is better known now, Bacchu Razakar, was. Bacchu pulled the trigger himself. Kader didn't. Kader handed out orders. Thus he cannot be tried for first degree murder and was thus instead charged as having "complicity" to murder. When someone is charged for this, they, by law, cannot receive a death sentence. The highest level of punishment available to them, is life imprisonment and thus Bacchu received the death penalty while Kader was sentenced to life in prison.

Let's now assume that the govt. did get their way (which is not all that unlikely). Why would they want to lower his sentence? If anything this govt. desired more than stuffing cash down their pockets (or sarees), it was to get this war crimes thing done and dusted. One theory is that they caved to Jamaati pressure. Jamaat is a fundamentalist party. Fundamentalists are generally synonymous with fanatics. So when Jamaat threatened civil war, they could very well carry it out. So to keep them happy, they could've lowered the man's sentence.

The guilty party
Now thousands upon thousands have invaded Shahbagh to scream for his blood. I will not call this a well orchestrated govt. plot. They're not smart enough for this type of foresight. But what they want, a death penalty, is quite unattainable. The man was tried as complicity not as first degree murder. You can't give him death for that. For the govt. to overrule this would be to overrule the entire justice system, the law and democracy itself and embrace totalitarian fascism. For them to overrule it would set a dangerous precedent that might well come back to bite them in the ass one day. Completely possible in the vindictive world of the two dynasties of Bangladeshi politics. They cannot appeal this decision, by law. The only possible appeal the prosecution have is on the one charge Kader was acquitted. But that crime seems no worse than the rest, and to increase his sentence based on it, would be unjust. Don't get me wrong. The guy is guilty, I don't doubt that. He's a bastard and he deserves the highest punishment. But the verdict that the court has given should not be overruled on sentiment and emotion. If it is, why did we bother with a trial at all?

Corrigendum and Updates:
 I had stated that a death penalty was not possible for his charges. That is wrong. Under the ICT act, a judge has discretion to give anyone any punishment they deem is worthy of the crime for which that person is convicted. Not only that, for charges 5 and 6, he was convicted of more than complicity. Now, to give him death on the first three charges would be insane. They don't even have proof that the man was even at the scene of the crime. Normally, first degree murder and terrorism are the only charges for which one gets death penalties so we eliminate those three. For the next two, as has been pointed out to me and to which I agree, he COULD have gotten a death penalty. As to why he didn't, my thoughts are that it is because of failure on the part of the prosecution. To both cases, he was proven to have been at the scene of the crime, to have given moral support, to have been involved in planning and to have played a larger part than complicity. Now, for this, a death penalty could have been given out. But the prosecution could neither prove that he himself carried out any crimes at the scene nor that he had given orders for these crimes to be carried out. Three judges, then based on the evidence, unanimously convicted him guilty and handed him life imprisonments. To have given him a death penalty, would have been acceptable, but highly questionable and probably a bit extreme. I apologize for my mistake, but have not made a change in my standpoint of this entire farcical affair and it's fallout. 

Also, an update on a statement I made regarding whether the govt. could appeal this conviction. The law ministry has confirmed that it will be proposing an amendment to the ICT act so that they may appeal for a higher sentence.

For more reading in the meanwhile:

Bangladesh War Crimes Blog - British journo David Bergman has been following the trials from start to finish (though has been inactive since Bacchu's verdict). Read more on the witness intimidation and things I mentioned here.

Verdict summary of Kader in the Daily Star - Each case is talked about in detail here.