In a few days, the International Crimes Tribunal will hold a hearing to decide whether an article written by David Bergman is in contempt of court. The editor and publisher of  his employer, New Age, have also been made co-respondents to this order. It would be instructive to take a look at how Bergman has arrived at this situation, and why the Tribunal is devoting its precious time in deciding such ancilliary matter.

Bergman’s reporting, ever since this Tribunal was set up has been invaluable, for two reasons. He has provided a somewhat unbiased voice, reporting the details of the legal proceedings without the ideological goggles that hobble so many of our other reporters. Moreover, he has had at least some interaction with foreign judiciaries, and has been able to effectively compare and contrast the Tribunal against its international counterparts.

We should note, at the outset, that Bergman is British, which means that he has had some experience operating under draconian press laws. This has generally stood him in good stead. A lesser individual, perhaps an American, would have been reduced to hysterics and babbling incoherently about freedom of speech by now.

Last April, Bergman wrote a largely positive piece about the Tribunal. However, the Tribunal picked out two phrases used in the article, and took issue. One was “the tribunal showed itself to have lost its backbone” and the other was “return to being the rubberstamp?” What followed, in the Tribunal’s next proceeding, is best described in Bergman’s own words:

Judge AKM Zahir Ahmed then spoke. He said that an article had come to his attention, ‘International Criminal Tribunal: Growing Independence or a Return to be being a rubber stamp’ which was in part ‘contemptuous’. He said,’Journalists are allowed to express their views’ but cant be in contempt of court.

He then referred to various expressions that were used,’Who is he to say what does or does not have a backbone?’

Justice ATM Fazle Kabir then spoke, and asked whether ‘David Bergman was present in court.’ I put my hand up and he then asked me to stand up. He then said, ‘We have gone through this report. Your manner of reporting is very nice, no doubt … We know that you are of foreign origin and so we are warning you about your language.’

He then said that there were two words that were ‘very much contemptuous.’ He then referred to the use of the word, ‘Rubber stamp’. ‘We are very sorry about this but you can not use this words about our court. If you use these words in future then we will take action. According to the rules of this court in Bangladesh these words are absolutely contemptuous. In recognition of the fact that you are a foreigner, we will not take action against you.’

Yikes. Called out in open court. Not a fun experience.

However, it’s hard to see why hoping a court does not become a rubber stamp for the prosecution should be contempuous; here’s the same term being used regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, one of the US Government’s most sensitive organs, a justice of the United States Supreme Court, and by Julian Assange regarding the British Court ruling that allows his extradition to Sweden. Does that mean that the courts of United States and United Kingdom are less deserving of our respect? Or that they have a greater tolerance for criticism?

What about the Tribunal’s objection to being relegated with the fruit fly and spiders? If that is contempuous, what should we make of thisclaim by Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine and a Republican presidential candidate in 1996, that “the United States Supreme Court has the backbone of an eclair?” Should the United States Supreme Court take lessons from the Tribunal in comport and dignity? Or am I guilty of comparing eclairs and chomchoms here?

Well, following this little showdown, Bergman managed to stay out of trouble for almost six months. Until, that is, the Tribunal got down to its actual business and took cognizance of the charges against (a fancy way of saying indicted) Delwar Hossain Saydee. Bergman again wrote a rather milquetoast article: reviewing the proceedings so far, and mapping out the road ahead.

Again, the Tribunal confused Bergman’s expression of some people’s fears about the Tribunal as Bergman’s own opinion, and whipped out its contempt of court order. Looking back, it’s only surprising that the Tribunal restrained itself for so long. Ever since then-Justice Khairul Huq used contempt of court to accomplish what Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could not, this particular mean of stifling dissent is extremely popular with Bangladesh’s higher judiciary. In short, the feeling is “all the cool benches are doing it, why shouldn’t we?”

The contempt order was passed down on October 3. Bergman and New Age management submitted its replies on October 27, arguing that its report in contempt of court. The Tribunal will hear oral arguments and pass its order some time in the coming week.

In all likelihood, Bergman will get away with only a verbal warning, and maybe a token monetary fine. As noted, the Tribunal is entering a crucial phase here, and it will be unwise to distract attention from its legal work by handing down an unnecessarily harsh measure, especially on such a well-regarded individual. In the off-chance that the Tribunal does impose a more punitive penalty, it will be making its own functioning decidedly more complicated, and add to the miasma of controversies that is already swirling around it.