Bangladesh amends war crimes law amid protest

Amendment allows retrial of cases from 1971 war after rallies calling for death penalty for Jamaat-e-Islami leaders.

Bangladesh’s parliament, meeting the demands of protesters, has amended a law allowing the state to appeal any verdict in war crimes trials it deems inadequate and out of step with public opinion.

The amendment will “empower the tribunals to try and punish any organisations, including Jamaat-e-Islami, for committing crimes during country’s liberation war in 1971”, Shafique Ahmed, the law minister, said on Sunday amid an opposition boycott.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators, jamming central Shahbag Square in the capital, Dhaka, for the 13th day, burst into cheers as the assembly approved the changes.

The protesters have been demanding death penalty for war crimes after a tribunal this month sentenced a prominent Jamaat-e-Islami leader to life in prison in connection with Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Protests erupted after Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary general of the Jamaat party, the country’s largest Islamic party, was sentenced to life for murder, rape and torture.

Demonstrators thronged the capital demanding capital punishment to Mollah.

However, supporters of Jamaat have held rallies to question the war tribunal’s neutrality. They have described the tribunal as politically motivated and demanded that the Jamaat leaders be tried under the auspices of the UN.

Lawyers said the amendment sets a timetable for the government to appeal against Mollah’s sentence and secure a retrial. The previous law did not allow state prosecutors to call for a retrial except in the case of acquittals.

Blog shut down 

Meanwhile, officials have said that Bangladeshi police have shut down a pro-Jamaat blog after it was linked to the murder of a blogger who helped organise protests against Jamaat leaders.

Blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, 35, was hacked to death near his home in Dhaka on Friday night. Family and friends said Haider played a key role in organising the protests and had an argument with Jamaat supporters just days before the murder.

Police have yet to comment on a possible motive, but his brother said Haider was targeted by Jamaat’s student wing for his online activities.

Jamaat issued a statement on Sunday condemning the murder and said neither it nor its student wing had anything to do with the crime.

Officials of the telecoms regulator told AFP news agency that the Sonar Bangla blogsite had been shut down since Saturday for spreading “hate speech and causing communal tension”.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia and its allies have been boycotting sessions almost since her rival, Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister, took office in 2009.

The BNP has accused the prime minister of using the war crimes tribunal as a weapon against its opponents. Hasina has denied the allegation.

Ban requested

Jamaat activists have called a country-wide strike for Monday.

In its first verdict last month, the tribunal sentenced a former Jamaat leader, Abul Kamal Azad, also an Islamic preacher, to death in absentia for similar offences.

Eight other Jamaat leaders, including its current and former chiefs, are being tried by the war crimes court that Hasina set up in 2010 to investigate abuses during the 1971 conflict.

The government says that three million people were killed during the war, many by pro-Pakistani militias whose members allegedly included Jamaat officials. Independent estimates put the figure much lower.

Protesters have called for a ban on Jamaat and groups linked to it, a demand Law Minister Ahmed said the government was considering.

Source: News Agencies