The decision to hand a death sentence to the leader of Bangladesh’s main religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has once again brought to the world’s attention the country’s controversial war crime trials after a year-long hiatus.
Motiur Rahman Nizami, head of Jamaat-e-Islami, has been convicted by a specially set up court of a string of crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence against then West Pakistan. These include murder, rape, incitement and leading the armed group, Al Badr, against pro-liberation supporters during the war.
The verdict, which comes soon after the death of the imprisoned former Jamaat leader, Ghulam Azam, is particularly noteworthy because it is the first one to be announced since January’s general election. The only other pronouncement that has come from the court since then has been the decision on the appeal of another senior Jamaat member, Delwar Hossain Sayedee.
It's not uncommon in that part of the world for trials like this to go on and on, but they still have to deal with these men. In a sense, the trials have become a thorn in their sides and they have to find a way to walk away from it all.
This is in stark contrast to last year, when the country was preparing to go to the polls. Verdicts were being handed down with striking regularity, increasing in rate as the election drew closer, to the point of almost one a month and culminating in the hanging of Jamaat member, Abdul Quader Mollah just weeks before voting took place.
The trials, which were Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s response to long-standing popular demands for justice, are being held at Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Dhaka. They were set up to deal specifically with allegations of local collaborators with West Pakistan who are accused of murder, rape and torture.
‘A political play’
But the process has been mired in controversy ever since the first of the 16 accused men, all of whom are leading members of the main opposition parties, were put in the dock early last year.
Human Rights Watch and the International Bar Association are just two of a number of bodies that have formally criticised the ICT for being incompatible with international standards on matters of transparency and fairness, and for not following due process.
But it is the allegation that Hasina had hoped to benefit politically from the trials that appears to have gained momentum in recent times, especially given the silence of the court since the election in January.
Toby Cadman, a British lawyer representing the accused, even cites political involvement as being behind the revision of Sayedee’s death sentence in September to life imprisonment.
“It’s no coincidence that the decision to commute the sentence happened when Hasina was attending the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering in New York,” he said.
“She did not want to risk violence on the streets of Bangladesh while she was facing world leaders. The court’s decision was a demonstration of her control of the courts. The lives of these people are in her hands.”
But members of the Awami League refute these claims and insist that all decisions made by the ICT are independent.
Syed Faruk, the party’s representative in the UK, denies that the prime minister has had any hand in the legal process: “Sheikh Hasina has been campaigning to bring these men to trial for many years,” he said.
“Long before any talk of elections. But she has had absolutely no say in any of the decisions since the trials started. Our courts are completely impartial and we are proud of our justice system.”
Still, the ICT has yet to adequately explain why the trials have stagnated. In June, at a meeting at the British House of Lords, Bangladesh’s newly appointed foreign minister, Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali, pointed out to Al Jazeera that preparation for the cases were complex and time-consuming. This does not, of course, explain the swiftness of the proceedings last year.
A stagnant process
Some observers point towards speculation in Bangladesh that the men’s fates are no longer a priority, given that Hasina and her party are back in power for an historic second term.
Manzoor Hasan, a barrister involved in issues of governance and transparency says: “Political commentators are openly saying that the trials are not the main concerns for the ruling party, and that it is now focusing on what it considers to be more important issues affecting the country.”
He adds: “It’s also believed the government wants to avoid any further unrest on the streets, and it certainly doesn’t want that.”
In short, there is a chance the government stands to lose more than it will gain if the trials continue, given that they have already resulted in violent street protests that have left hundreds of people dead,.
Zafar Sobhan is the editor of the secular, pro-independence newspaper, The Daily Tribune, known especially for its damning editorials against Jamaat. He says the facts support the political agenda theory, but adds that any delays do not necessarily undermine the credibility of the court.
“Different cases take different lengths of time,” he said. “I don’t think one can expect cases to be resolved at a consistent pace. Unnecessary delay is, of course, not a good thing, but I have heard neither the prosecution nor the defence raise this complaint.”
In the meantime, more than a dozen men languish in prison awaiting their fate, some of them influential and well-known. For this reason, everyone agrees the current situation must eventually be resolved, whatever the politicking.
Cadman says: “It’s not uncommon in that part of the world for trials like this to go on and on, but they still have to deal with these men. In a sense, the trials have become a thorn in their sides and they have to find a way to walk away from it all.”
For the men inside, this is their only hope. And for the hundreds of thousands Bangladesh people who lost family members in what is described as one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century, their hopes for justice remain unfulfilled.
Follow Shamim Chowdhury on Twitter: @shamiminlondon