ICT


Sakti Saha, the son of a 1971 martyr, gave witness in the trial of Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mojaheed yesterday. By all accounts, it was a heartbreaking moment, as Saha broke down while describing his father’s death. Several newspapers headlined and highlighted this incident.

But what got lost was what Saha did not say. And the fact that is not noticed today will make any teeth-gnashing and sloganeering the day Mojaheed’s sentence comes out quite moot.

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It’s either 2005 or 2006. I am sitting at a family member’s home in Virginia, enjoying the new experience of watching Bangladeshi channels in the US. While surfing channels, the visage of a bearded man, holding forth on some lecture, flashes on the screen.

For the first and last time in my life, I hear the sound of teeth being gnashed.

I turn and ask my family member the reason for his extreme reaction. He tells me his story- of how, as a youth, he had run, futilely, after a Pakistani Army jeep which was driving away with his father. The place was Faridpur. The year 1971. And the man who had guided the Pakistani Army to his home was Bacchu Razakar, now Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the man with the orange beard.

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The Government of Bangladesh has suggested that it is going to form at least another bench to expedite the trial of the men accused of committing crimes against humanity. There are certain things that the government can do to avoid much of the controversy that is dogging the current tribunal.

  1. Have at least two judges with district court experience: In the current tribunal, Justice Fazle Kabir was a district court judge before being elevated to the High Court. Zaheer Ahmed is also a retired district court judge. District courts are the trial courts of Bangladesh’s legal system, and the judges who rise up through that system have a far greater experience regarding the minutiae of handling a trial, like evidentiary and exculpatory issues. The transcripts of the direct and cross-examination of prosecution witnesses in the trial of Delwar Hossain Saydee has made this abundantly clear. Justices Zaheer and Kabir have been extremely active in deciding whether to sustain or overrule the objections by the prosecution and the defense teams, while the chairman, Justice Nizamul Huq has mostly been a silent spectator. The new tribunal should also have at least two judges with experience at the district court level, and unlike this the current tribunal, one of these two should be made the chairman of the tribunal.
  2. Have at least two judges with at least five years of appellate experience: Justice Fazle Kabir was appointed by the BNP government in 2003. So, he had seven years of experience in the High Court under his belt before being appointed to the war-crimes trial. Justice Nizamul Huq, on the other hand, was appointed in 2001, not confirmed in 2003 (along with Shamshuddin Chowdhury Manik, what a wise decision that was), and then again reappointed in 2009. This means that he had only heard appellate cases for 3 years (2001-2003, 2009-2010) before being appointed to the Tribunal, and even that with a six-year gap in between. For the new tribunal, the government would do well to appoint judges with at least five years of uninterrupted appellate experience.
  3. Avoid controversial judges: At first glance, this may seem to be an extremely subjective measure, but the government would be wise to do all it can to appoint people who are as uncontroversial as possible. Justice Fazle Kabir is controversial because he was the other judge with then-Justice Khairul Huq when he handed down his Fifth Amendment verdict and started our court on its festival of constitution-shredding. However, that is a matter of completely different magnitude from Justice Nizamul Huq, who took part in a mock-prosecution of these same men as a private citizen, and whose presence has irreversibly tainted the whole proceedings. For the new tribunals, Awami League should avoid individuals with direct participation with the 1992 mock trials, as well as those judges who were reappointed in 2009, and some of whom have been elevated to the Appellate Division.

If Awami League really wants to finish all the trial proceedings within the 2012 calendar year, then it has no choice but to constitute new tribunals. However, the absence of interlocutory appeals makes this process quite challenging, since different tribunals could potentially rule differently on the same issues, and the prosecution would be able to take advantage of forum-shopping. While the road ahead is certainly challenging for the government, if it chooses the members of the new tribunal with some foresight (which was very much missing was constituting the current tribunal), it may make its mission slightly easier.

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.