Law Minister Shafique Ahmed has said prosecution witnesses in the ongoing trial of those charged with committing crimes against humanity are “being threatened”.
The witnesses were being told that they might face trouble if the government changed, he said. “It should be understood that this is a reason why the prosecution is not being able to produce a number of witnesses [in court]”.
The minister said this while addressing a dialogue on ‘Trial of Crimes Against Humanity: Ensuring Transparency, Accountability and Due Process of Law’ at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre in the capital yesterday.
The minister said the ongoing trial would be completed by 2012, adding that another tribunal was expected to begin operations by March this year.
The formation of more tribunals would depend on the findings of the investigators and on how much evidence was available for the prosecution, he said.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) organised the dialogue.
Speakers at the programme said the failure to produce witnesses before the International Crimes Tribunal indicated a lack of preparation on the prosecution’s part; and the defence could take advantage of it.
In response, prosecutor Saiful Islam ruled out the notion that the prosecution lacked preparation.
“The witnesses, victims, their family members are under threat. They are worried,” he said, adding that the witnesses must be mentally and physically healthy to appear before the court.
On the question of international standards in the trial being maintained, the speakers said there was no universal standard that needed to be maintained.
“There is no such thing as an international golden standard,” Gowhar Rizvi, the international affairs adviser to the prime minister, said, adding, “What our law reflects are the best practices seen around the world.”
However, another concern surrounding the ongoing trial is that it was very urban-centric, pointed out Information Commissioner Prof Sadeka Halim.
“I have visited 29 districts over the last two years and found that the rural people have very little knowledge of the trial,” she said.
The information commissioner said more people could seek help through Right to Information (RTI) to learn more about the trial, which would only strengthen the process.
Protection of witnesses should not only be the responsibility of the state, said barrister M Amir-Ul Islam, adding that the defence had a role to play here as well.
NHRC Chairman Prof Mizanur Rahman said each of the defence counsels representing the accused at the tribunal was invited to the dialogue. But in a letter on Thursday, the defence had turned down the invitation.
General Secretary of Sector Commanders Forum Lt Gen (retd) Harun-Ur-Rashid, Chairman of Law Commission Prof M Shah Alam, War Crimes Fact Finding Committee Chairman MA Hasan and coordinator of the investigation agency Abdul Hannan, also took part in the dialogue.