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War crimes tribunal hands down death penalty

Suspect sentenced amid questions over trial process reporter, Dhaka

January 21, 2013

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The country’s war crimes tribunal today sentenced a fugitive leader of the fundamentalist Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami to death on charges of war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 War of Liberation.

The verdict against Abul Kalam Azad is the first to be handed down from two special courts prosecuting 11 leaders, nine from Jamaat and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for crimes against humanity.

Jamaat was against the nine-month war for independence from Pakistan, during which an estimated three million people were killed and 200,000 women were raped, according to Bangladeshi authorities.

Azad was found guilty on seven of eight charges including murder, rape and looting. He was tried in absentia after reportedly fleeing to Pakistan last April.

Jamaat and its longtime political ally BNP have called the trial a farce and said it was politically motivated, while the government has said it is satisfying a longstanding public demand.

Goyesshar Chandra Roy, a BNP leader, said in reaction after the sentence that he was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied over the verdict.

“We were never against a war crimes trial, but we didn’t want it to be used as a political tool. I’m concerned that the court has sentenced the one in absentia, instead of those in custody,” Roy told reporters in Dhaka.

International watchdogs, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have also questioned the standards of the tribunal.

Last month, British magazine The Economist published reports based on Skype and email conversations between a presiding judge of another tribunal and a Belgium-based Bangladeshi lawyer that revealed the government is pressing the tribunal for quick verdicts, leading to reshuffling of the tribunal.

“The tribunal might have some controversy, but it was a fair trial,” said Catholic lawyer and rights activist Rosaline Costa. “The accused was given enough time and the court took enough time to prove crimes against him. But, as he fled he couldn’t avail himself of all the opportunities to defend himself.”

She added that Azad can still seek justice by appealing against the verdict in the High Court within one month and can also seek presidential clemency.

Bishop Gervas Rozario, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Justice and Peace, said Azad deserves punishment for “proven crimes”, but the Catholic Church does not support capital punishment.

“I think justice has been done for victims of war crimes committed by Azad,” he said. “However, on moral grounds we cannot support the death penalty.”

No Jamaat leader was immediately available for comment.   

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