Appeals verdict triggers blunderbuss of explosives
Early last month, on August 3, an article in the Wall Street Journal of USA indentified current woes of the political economy of Bangladesh as follows: “Bangladesh has long suffered from hartals, which have been common in South Asia since the days of Mahatma Gandhi, who used them to protest colonial rule in India. In the case of Bangladesh, the hartals are called by any of the country’s raucous political parties to score political points or embarrass whoever controls the government.
“But this year is shaping up to be especially bad for strikes at a time when Bangladesh is already struggling to rebuild its reputation with apparel companies after the Rana Plaza factory disaster. In part that is because of tensions over a controversial war-crimes tribunal set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to investigate atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. The tribunal has reopened old wounds and triggered strikes, including several called by the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party last month after some of its leaders were sentenced.
“The hartals are also spreading because Bangladesh is preparing for a national election that must be held by January, which has further inflamed passions.
“The country has endured 36 nationwide shutdowns this year, according to the Commerce Ministry, compared with 29 last year and 17 in 2009 to 2011. Typically, university classes are canceled, businesses operate at reduced staff, and many people stay home lest they get caught in stray violence. More than 80 people have died in hartal-related bloodshed since January, while protesters have torched hundreds of buses and cars.
Strikes cost $7b this year
“The strikes have cost the country more than $7 billion this year or more than $200 million for each day of strikes, the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates.”
Thereafter from mid-August to mid-September, the country enjoyed a relative lull in street agitation and hartal culture, as the main contestants for power in the next general election decided on campaigning for public support and audience, postponing confrontation until after Eid-ul-Azha. The lull has been broken by what many people see as a politically-inspired judgment by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh on September 17.
A report in Asia Times on line on September 20 noted: “Defying logic and all manner of common sense, the country’s Supreme Court on Wednesday increased the sentence on Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior member of the biggest Islamic party in the country, the Jamaat-e-Islami, to the death penalty for committing crimes against humanity during the nation’s 1971 independence war against Pakistan.
“The Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) (dubbed ‘international’ but in fact a domestic court) had sentenced the veteran politician to life imprisonment on February 5, 2013, for crimes against humanity.
Following due course of the law, both the defense and prosecution appealed that sentence to the Supreme Court. The appellate division dismissed appeals from Mollah’s lawyers against his conviction on five counts of crimes against humanity, and in an unusual move increased the punishment to the death penalty – in line with the prosecution’s appeal. Mollah’s lawyer Abdur Razzak said the defense would file a petition for a review, but Attorney General Mahbube Alam said a review was not an option under the constitution. ‘This decision over which the accused now has no further right of appeal or review is in clear breach of international law,’ Mollah’s international legal team said in a statement.
“Couled with the glaring flaws in the trial of Abdul Quader Mollah and the other accused at the ICT trials, and the fact that the almost all defendants are members of the opposition parties Jamaat and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the conviction that the trials are politically motivated is only bound to get stronger.
“The law as it stood at the time of conviction did not permit any prosecution appeal for a higher sentence. In an unprecedented move, the ruling party made the move to amend the associated law to allow the prosecution to appeal. The amendment was passed following Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s remarkable statement in parliament, as a result of mass demonstrations on the streets of Dhaka that the tribunal judges should listen to ‘the sentiment of the people’. As experts noted in regard to the final judgement, the appellate division focused on building on previous convictions, as the court upheld unanimously that his acquittal on one charge (charge No. 4) should be reversed and should stand as a conviction, and most significantly that, by a majority, the sentence on charge No. 6 (the murder of a family), should be changed from life imprisonment to the death penalty.
“The case as it stood in front of the appellate division was an extremely weak one. Three of the five charges against Mollah relied totally on hearsay evidence. The charge for which Mollah was sentenced by the appellate division to hang was based on the testimony of a single witness, who was a 13-year-old at the time and against whose testimony there was no corroborating evidence whatsoever.”
Amnesty International had reacted the same day after the Supreme Court verdict was read out: “Bangladesh should immediately commute the death sentence of Abdul Quader Mollah.
“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. We urge Bangladeshi authorities to commute his death sentence, and to impose a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolishing the death penalty.
“Imposing a death sentence without the right of judicial appeal defies human rights law. There is no question that the victims of Bangladesh’s independence war deserve justice, but one human rights violation does not cancel out another.
“This is the first known case of a prisoner sentenced to death directly by the highest court in Bangladesh. It is also the first known death sentence in Bangladesh with no right of appeal.”
Offends basic notions
Human Rights Watch of New York said the death sentence violated fair trial standards: “Changing the law and applying it retroactively after a trial offends basic notions of a fair trial under international law.
“Until the Mollah case, the prosecution was only allowed to appeal if the accused was acquitted. 90 days were allowed for appeals. The amendments were adopted on February 17. On September 17, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court reversed the life sentence on Mollah and imposed the death penalty for murder and rape as crimes against humanity. The amendments are a clear violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a state party. An amendment to the Bangladeshi constitution which strips those accused of war crimes of certain fundamental rights should be repealed to ensure equality and due process of law. Although the Bangladeshi constitution contains a safeguard against retroactive application of laws, the amendment removes these protections from those accused of war crimes. Human Rights Watch has long called for the repeal of this amendment as it violates international law.
The prohibition against retroactive application of laws is a universal protection for everyone against the abuse of laws. Without this protection, governments would simply keep amending laws whenever faced with a verdict they didn’t like.
Human Rights Watch is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances since it is an irreversible, cruel, and degrading punishment. The United Nations 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.”
Triggering explosive events
But more than any judicial blunder as implied in these reactions, the delivery of the verdict has triggered a blunderbuss of explosive events. Hartal culture was revived in full fury for 48 hours at a stretch throughout urban Bangladesh, followed by local half-day or full day hartals in many places, street demonstrations and protest gatherings everywhere, police raids for arrest of agitators, public resistance to police actions, and resulting deaths and injuries on both sides.
Unrelated to the verdict yet compounding the fury of civil unrest by coincidence, garments factory workers began agitating from September 17 for more than doubling their wages, incidentally goaded by a member of the cabinet who is also a leader of transport workers now burning his hand in attempting to “co-ordinate” garment factory workers, a potential vote bank in relevant industrial belts. Bands of striking workers over more than a week now have been coming out from their factories or meetings, calling on others to join them, pelting stones at strike-breakers, blocking roads and highways, vandalising and burning factories, snatching away guns from Ansar guards and engaging in street battles with stones and sticks against riot-police charging with tear-gas and rubber bullets, sometimes live bullets.
Starting from Gazipur-Asulia belt, violent unrest spread to Dhaka, Narayanganj, Savar and other places around. Factories were locked out and then many re-opened at the instance of the government. The cabinet minister, whose coordination council for garments workers fuelled the unrest, appealed to the workers to join their factories peacefully and await the award due in November of an independent wage-board appointed by a Tripartite body representing the government, the factory-owners and labour leaders. But the unrest had gone out of control, and bloody violence continued here and there.
Week’s last working day
On the last day of the working week, September 26, many garments factories in Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar started production after five days of workers’ protest. But RMG workers at Jirani of Ashulia area took to the streets and blocked traffic for 30 minutes demanding closed factories to be open. There was protest also in from a factory in Mouchak area of Kaliyakoir upazila. 20 factories in the area had declared closure to avert mayhem. BGB troops were deployed in Gazipur, joining large contingents of police and RAB to maintain peace.
Meanwhile in major cities, Jamaat supporters are continuing agitation. Activists of Islami Chhatra Shibir, student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, brought out a brisk procession in Badda area of the capital and vandalised several vehicles on September 26, last day of the working week. The demonstration, accompanied by three cocktail explosions, was staged as part of the organisation’s countrywide agitation demanding release of its leaders and activists.
In the port city of Chittagong, incidents of violence marked a half day hartal on September 26 called by the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, protesting the arrest of its 34 leaders and activists. Shibir activists set fire on a CNG-run auto rickshaw, vandalised some vehicles and blasted couple of cocktails.
In Satkhira on September 26 morning, a man was killed and 10 others were injured in a clash between supporters of an Awami League leader and a BNP leader over establishing local supremacy.
It seems political confrontation on the streets may no more await the Eid-ul-Azha celebrations.