Things Lord Avebury Failed to Mention and Clarify

(Translated by WCSF member Nazia Manzoor from the original Bengali version of the Post at Muktangon blog (dated 25 June), a member organisation of WCSF coalition).

Dear Lord Avebury,

A little while ago we received a copy of the press statement issued by you. The statement is in direct reference to the All Parliamentary Human Rights Group Seminar held on the 23rd June Wednesday (see here).

Before we go into the anomalies in your statement, let us clarify a few things first on our part. For the record, we are still of the position that discussions that can improve the trial process in any manner is essential and should be welcome. Because, our collective goal is not only to facilitate this long overdue justice process, but also to ensure that it takes place in a credible and sustainable manner, for the sake of justice. Therefore, we feel that this All Party Parliamentary Group’s seminar presented an opportunity which could have been used to bring on board all the parties who are sincere about the trial. Unfortunately, dear Lord Avebury, your decision – to go ahead with the Seminar with a dubious entity disregarding the concerns expressed by independent civil society bodies like us, and even as far as opting to take the said entity’s aid in organising the event – demonstrates poor judgement on your part at the least, if not anything devious. It has now become a missed opportunity, and perhaps, made these discussions much more difficult to take place in future, since IBA (ie, International Bar Association – War Crimes Committee) too is now considered to have compromised its independence by attending this dubious seminar organised by a political lobby that clearly represents the alleged war criminals. We, who care about 1971 and the victims of war crimes, hold you personally responsible for harming this positive space for dialogue.

Some of the highlights of your statement include:

1. At the request of the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG), the War Crimes Committee of the International Bar Association (IBA) is examining/evaluating the legislations under which the government of Bangladesh intends to hold trials of persons accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the war of independence in 1971

2. Which does not necessarily undermine or downplay the severity of the war crimes committed in Bangladesh. Rather the evaluation merely tries to ascertain the fact that no objection to the proceedings would be likely to arise on the grounds that the 1973 Act was not in conformity with developments in the legal standards developed over the last 37 years.

3. At the end of 2009 the War Crimes Committee reported its findings to the PHRG, and after internal consideration, the report was sent to the Bangladesh High Commissioner under cover of a letter from the Chair of the PHRG, Ms Ann Clwyd, requesting that it be transmitted to relevant Ministers in Bangladesh, and asking for their comments.

4. A seminar was held on June 24 in Committee Room 3 of the House of Lords to discuss the IBA report, and the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the UK sent his government’s comments on June 21 (see here for details). He was unable to attend the seminar or send a representative.

5. Among the main speakers of the seminar was Khandker Mahbub Hossain, President of Supreme Court Bar Association of Bangladesh.

6. The representatives of the IBA reiterated that they would be ready to give detailed advice to the government of Bangladesh on how the legislation could be amended so as to comply with recent norms of international law, in line with models such as the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, and national tribunals such as those in East Timor and Sierra Leone.

7. Lord Avebury undertook to convey this offer of a dialogue to the authorities in Bangladesh

Now, dear Lord Avebury, please read and listen carefully what we have to say:

1. This is not the first time Bangladesh is preparing to try its war criminals. In 1972, the newly independent nation initiated proceedings to try the alleged war criminals of 1971. These proceedings were held under the “Collaborators Act”. There was no question about the standard of that particular legislation. The other piece of legislation was the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973, aimed at trying the Pakistani soldiers and the members of different auxiliary forces who were involved in the commission of ‘international crimes’. None of the legislations were criticised at the time. Rather, it was the 1973 Act which was lauded internationally because of its high standards. The military coup of 15 August, 1975 brought over a new government abruptly ending all the pending proceedings and releasing even the convicted ones. Although Collaborators Act had been repealed and the tribunals under it had been cancelled accordingly, the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 remained effective. The forces who intended to revert the history of independence through that military coup of 1975, and their followers who later claimed power in Bangladesh, never tried to amend this piece of legislation, neither did they raise any objection about its ‘standards’, until now. Interestingly, they have begun to raise these objections only recently, realising that there may after all be a prosecution. If you follow the ways in which politics in Bangladesh worked you would see that the people who are now lobbying internationally to discredit the trial-initiatives, are the very same people who had put an end to the earlier proceedings back in the days. Perhaps they didn’t account for the fact that someday, the Bangladeshi people would be vocal about these crimes against humanity. Had they known this day is ahead of them, they would have found a way to repeal this legislation themselves. That would have saved you the trouble of arranging this farcical pretention of a seminar.

2. However, those of us who are working hard to get the perpetrators of the crimes get a proper trial are not opposed to discussing this legislation, or improving it, if that can be done within a realistic time frame prioritising the trial. We believe the government of Bangladesh expressed similar interest and even went as far as to amend the legislation in 2009. The government has also ratified the Rome Statute, a feat unmatched by many other “democratic” countries. If there indeed are legitimate doubts about the legislation, then Bangladesh has a proper democratic environment to facilitate those claims. However, this very process becomes a farce when indiduals representing certain quarters (namely, the war criminal lobbies) manipulate the process by getting involved under false pretenses. It must be noted, the people who are using the 1973 Tribunal Act as a shield to postpone or even derail the proceedings have their own representatives in the parliament. Interestingly, they never raised these concerns inside the Parliament. Not even once, during all these years! We cannot help ask you one question: who do you think have the bona fide standing to evaluate (or re-evaluate) the law that, for example, was aimed at prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes in Rwanda? Those who themselves were the perpetrators and their collaborators? Or, it should be those who were actually the victims of these crimes? What would have been your response if some neo-Nazi groups demanded evaluation of the trial of the Nazis? We wonder.

3. Your statement notes – the Bangladesh Cigh Commissioner in the UK has handed over a reasoned opinion from the government of Bangladesh with regard to the legislative review of IBA. However, we still do not know your exact position on that. Until you disclose that precisely, we are at the fence about your promise to help ‘amend the legislation’.

4. Your statement implies that it was PHRG which arranged the seminar to discuss IBA’s findings. The facts, however, suggest something else (see here and here). An organization in the name of Justice Concern was behind arranging this seminar and later amid protests from different organizations like War Crimes Strategy Forum and London Lawyers’ Forum removed their name out of the equation, on paper at least. During the question-answer session in the seminar, in response to a question put to you by a member from the media, even you have admitted about JusticeConcern’s financial involvement in arranging the event, in addition to the ‘clerical support’ which you have purportedly received from them. Interestingly, none of these crucial facts made their way into your statement. There were clear indications that some of the speakers and attendees in the seminar were individuals who are directly affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami/BNP politics, the political lobby that has always been reluctant and even resistant to the war crime trial issue. You had been duly notified about that by WCSF and London Lawyers’ Forum, not once, twice. Let us remind you, this Jamat e-Islami is the very same political party which in 1971 encouraged its leaders and followers to participate, commit and assist in war-crimes alongside the invading Pakistani army. It should not surprise anyone that they are now trying to find faults with the legislation or the trial process, at times even equipped by well-meaning legislative reviews conducted by bodies like IBA. Their objectives are obvious – to delay, discredit, and if possible to prevent the trial from happening and let the perpetrators get away in the name of ‘due process’ and ‘human rights’. We are aware that a journalist present in the event inquired about these concerns while the seminar was in session, and you tried to downplay the participation of Justice Concern, and also failed to provide a satisfactory reply as to who actually sponsored/funded the event. This surprised us and we are yet to receive a satisfactory response from you on the matter, which we believe, you owe to the people of Bangladesh who have been seeking justice for 39 long years.

5. The speakers of the seminar include Khandker Mahbub Hossain, President of Supreme Court Bar Association of Bangladesh. In his usual media statements, he often tries to give the impression that – he is not against the war crimes tribunal and all he wants is that the legislation be of international standard. Let us inform you – incidentally, Mr. Hossain was in New York a while ago and there he had tried to gather support against trying the war-criminals and even went as far as boldly asserting that “there are no war-criminals in Bangladesh”. So, please forgive us when we consider this entire seminar a farcical nonsense when luminary speakers of such devious stance on this matter are invited as experts to evaluate the legislation aimed (according to Mr Mahbub Hossain) apparently to try some “non-existent war-criminals”. We really do not have the time to entertain such nonsense and we believe, neither do you, dear Sir.

6. Another piece of information about the current President of Supreme Court Bar Association of Bangladesh may interest you given that he is an active member of BNP. You should know that in December 2009, BNP (ie, the major ally of Jamat e-Islami) has amended its Party Constitution altering one of its founding principles. The aim of this amendment was to remove the existing membership bar that prevented suspected/alleged war criminals from joining the party. Therefore, by association, Khandakar Mahbub Hossain is not someone who can be trusted and his motive is questionable at the very least.

7. The way in which you are trying to protect Justice Concern despite wide scale protests and concerns by many involved, forces us to rethink your neutrality in this situation.

When there is so little transparency in what you say or do, can you really blame us for being suspicious of the manner in which you have handled the issue of discussion on the 1973 Act? The ball is now in your court, Mr Avebury. We would vigilantly observe how you explain yourself.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article or in the comment section are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Crimes Strategy Forum (ICSF).

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