Five prominent Pakistani citizens, whose evidence could exonerate a Bangladesh opposition politician sentenced to death for crimes against humanity, are urging the Bangladesh courts to allow them to testify.
The Pakistani citizens include Mohammed Mian Soomro, who in 2007 held the position of prime minister, Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a former national assembly and cabinet minister, and Amber Haroon Saigol, who is the chairperson of Dawn media group. The other two are businessmen.
They all claim that Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was living in Karachi in April 1971 when the four offences, for which he was sentenced to death, took place.
The four death sentences were originally imposed in October 2013, by the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court based in Dhaka which was established to prosecute Bangladeshis alleged to have committed crimes in support of the Pakistani army during the war in 1971 which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh.
The nine-month war, following a military crackdown by the Pakistan military in March 1971, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, with the Bangladesh government claiming that as many as 3 million people were killed. The Awami League, currently in power in Bangladesh, spearheaded the fight against the Pakistan military which resulted in the independence of the country in December, 1971.
During the war, many were killed at the hands of Islamist Bangladesh parties, particularly the Jamaat-e-Islami, who supported the Pakistani military during the conflict.
Following the assassination in 1975 of the independence leader Sheikh Mujib, all attempts to hold to account those who committed crimes during the 1971 war came to an end, until the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s daughter, established the tribunals in 2010.
Death sentence upheld
Chowdhury, whose father died in jail in 1973 after being arrested following the end of the war, has until Thursday to file an application seeking a review of the appellate division ruling which late last month upheld his death sentence.
The Pakistani witnesses say that they had hoped to give their evidence at the Tribunal itself, but the court, having allowed the prosecution to summon 41 witness, ruled that that Chowdhury’s defence lawyers could only summon a total of five witnesses to testify.
The witnesses then drafted sworn affidavits which were submitted to the court, but both the Tribunal and the Appellate Division ruled them inadmissible.
The Tribunal has so far convicted 24 people, most of them leaders of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party. Two of their leaders, Abdul Quader Mollah and Md Kamruzzman, have so far been executed.
Chowdhury would be the first leader of the opposition BNP to be executed. The party itself has not made any public statements in his support.
Although the tribunal has been seriously criticised by human rights organisations outside the country, proceedings seem to have widespread support in Bangladesh, and receive no criticism from local human rights groups.
As first reported in The Wire, the five witnesses say that it would be highly unjust to execute Chowdhury without having heard their testimony.
Studying in Pakistan
Muneeb Arjmand Khan, a garment exporter, says that his testimony would “have changed the whole proceedings of the court”.
He says that on March 29, just four days after the Pakistani army crackdown in Dhaka, he collected Chowdhury, an old school friend, from Karachi airport and took him to the house of the Haroon family, and then three weeks later put him on a plane to Lahore where he was going to study.
These three weeks are crucial as the offences for which Chowdhury was sentenced to death took place on April 13 and 17.
“We are not making anything up. What we have to say is the truth,” he said.
Amber Haroon Saigal, who was 20 years old in 1971, remembers Chowdhury coming to stay at her family house.
“Salauddin stayed at our family house [in Karachi] for two or three weeks from the end of March to mid-April 1971”, she said “We used to have discussions at the dinner table where [he] would join me, my sisters and my parents.
“It is the truth. And to save someone’s life of course I would come to Bangladesh to testify if the court allowed it,” she said.
Mohammed Mian Soomro, who in 2007 became the caretaker prime minister of Pakistan said that during the three weeks Chowdhury was in Karachi, “he used to meet him regularly … before he went to Lahore”.
“This is an extreme case of victimisation of an innocent person and a grave injustice is happening,” he said. “In the name of justice, witnesses should be allowed to appear, and I am ready to testify in court under oath at any time.”