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War crimes law changed amid protests

Protesters say law is still not tough enough

War crimes law changed amid protests
Protesters demand death penalty for convicted war criminals reporter, Dhaka

February 18, 2013

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Parliament has announced changes to the current war crimes legislation that will allow the state to appeal against any verdict deemed inadequate.

The move follows nearly two weeks of violent protests sparked by the sentencing of a Jamaat-e-Islami party leader to life in prison earlier in the month. The protesters maintain that his sentence should have been harsher.

The amendment would “empower the tribunals to try and punish any organizations, including the Jamaat-e-Islami party, for crimes committed during the country’s liberation war in 1971,” said Minister of Law Shafique Ahmed.

The legislation, the International Crimes Tribunal (Amendment) Act 2013 would also give equal rights to defendants and plaintiffs to appeal against verdicts.

Previous legislation passed in 1973 did not allow state prosecutors to call for a retrial except in the case of an acquittal.

The amendment was approved by lawmakers from the Grand Alliance, a coalition led by the ruling Awami League that has majority control of the 300-member parliament.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) boycotted Sunday’s session. The entire leadership of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, a key political ally of the BNP, faces war crimes charges.

The ruling was hailed by thousands of protesters who have blocked a busy intersection in downtown Dhaka for nearly two weeks, demanding the death penalty for war criminals and calling for a ban on all religion-based politics and political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami.

The protests erupted on February 5 following a sentence of life imprisonment for Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary general of Jamaat, on charges of murder, rape and torture – a sentence protesters said was too lenient.

Imran H Sarker, a key organizer of the protests, said he welcomed the amendment but more needed to be done.

“We have gained an initial victory, as the government has amended the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973,” he said during a rally on Sunday, but added that protesters further demanded the adoption of additional changes submitted to parliament.

These changes include the death penalty for all suspects convicted of war crimes, no chance of amnesty for convicted war criminals and the abolition of all religion-based political parties.

A Jamaat official responded on Sunday by rejecting the amendment and warning that the government’s actions would “lead the country into a civil war.”

“The government had made the decision to wipe out Islamic idealism in the country” Rafiqul Islam Khan, Jamaat acting secretary general said in a statement last night. He added that such move would put the country into a dreadful anarchy.

The war crimes tribunal was initiated by the Awami League in 2010 to fulfill a key campaign pledge. The two special courts are currently trying 11 suspected war criminals – nine from the Jamaat party and two from the BNP.

Opposition parties have dismissed the trials as being “politically motivated” rather than interested in seeking justice and have instead called for a UN-controlled trial.

The special courts have also drawn criticism from rights groups for failure to adhere to strict international standards of justice.

In a statement issued last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch said post-trial amendments to existing legislation would “taint the war crimes process.”

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