A recent article published in St. Louise Today, titled “Missourian in quest to free Bangladeshi newspaper owner from jail”, by Mr. Bill Lambrecht, talks about the current lobbying campaign against the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of Bangladesh, led by a Washington based lobbying firm “Cassidy and Associates” and its chairman Mr. Gregg Hartley. This article describes the campaign to free Mir Quasem Ali, owner of a newspaper and a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, who is currently in custody for war crimes in Bangladesh. While this article merely quotes Mr. Hartley and certain other critiques of ICT, it ignores certain other facts and clearly demonstrates either a bias or a lack of information that I will highlight in this writing. A more unbiased title could have been “Missourian in quest to free Bangladeshi accused war criminal from jail”, which would have been closer to the truth.
The article asserts that Mr. Ali’s political affiliation with Jamaat-e-Islami played a major role in his arrest. It is important to distinguish whether this political affiliation was the cause of his arrest or the cause of his alleged engagement in the war crimes during 1971. In order to understand this political affiliation, readers should know the current role of Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh. This Islamist party is in the forefront in spreading religious fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, anti-Semitism and widespread hatred against racial and religious minorities in Bangladesh. They are also the primary advocates of replacing the current secular constitution with Shariah laws. These political views led many of the leaders and supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami to conduct heinous atrocities, in the name of Islam, during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, which resulted in the deaths of millions of civilians and the rapes of 200-400 thousand women. So, while these crimes may very well have been motivated by political affiliations or ideological stance, the current tribunal is prosecuting them as individuals for their individual crimes.
It must be highlighted that while Mr. Gregg Hartley is lobbying for the accused war criminal, his primary motivation to push this cause is instigated by a $500,000 fee as mentioned in this article. It is important to note that this lobbying campaign is not funded by any human rights group, but financed by an accused war criminal and his family. Other than mentioning the amount, the article does not probe how Mr. Ali or his family managed to transfer such a large sum, circumventing Bangladesh Government’s strict regulatory policies regarding foreign currency remittances, without violating any local or international money laundering laws. Even though the legal obligation for the lobbying business doesn’t require having an ethical agenda, the question still remains how a lobbying firm can legally take a case with the agenda of influencing, impeding or, more importantly, delegitimizing an ongoing judicial process. I am curious if it would have been legal for Cassidy and Associates to be engaged by OJ Simpson for the purpose of ‘freeing’ Mr. Simpson by influencing the trial or its proceeding through lobbying efforts. Even though the lobbyists are not ethics bound, the politicians surely are. People will surely remember who among their lawmakers end up taking the sides of accused war criminals. I am sure that the Bengali community, all over the US, will be closely watching how many house representatives and senators join this campaign and will surely remember them at the time of their next elections.
Even though Mr. Hartley claims that his client Mir Quasem Ali is arrested only because of his anti government criticisms through his newspapers and television channels, Mr. Hartley fails to show why the current accusations against Mr. Ali are baseless, especially when Ali’s own defence team admits that, during the war in 1971, “he was a member of a pro-Pakistan militia while in his 20s”, as mentioned in this article. Isn’t it up to the tribunal to decide the depth of his engagement based on testimonies and evidences?
Since Mr. Harley is not a lawyer of the defence team, only a lobbyist for the people who can afford him, regardless of their background, to gain access to his political connections, I guess he is only doing his job and it is unfair for me to ask him that question. However, in the article Mr. Ali’s son Mir Ahmed was quoted that their newspaper, Daily Naya Diganta, is the ‘only’ newspaper “vocal about the injustices by the ruling regime”. Anyone familiar with Bangladeshi newspapers and media channels knows, there are at least another half a dozen newspapers in the country that are equally harsh in criticizing the current government as the Daily Naya Diganta, and their owners are not being arrested with the accusations of war crimes. So the allegation of Mr. Ali being arrested because of his media outlets doesn’t hold much water.
While this article quotes ‘Reporters Without borders’ for ranking Bangladesh 129th out of 179 countries, evaluated for their freedom of press, the author conveniently ignores that it is still a lot better than India (131), Israel (133), Russia (142), Mexico (149) and Pakistan (150), even USA is ranked 47th in that index, which is a even lower than some of the third world countries in Africa such as Niger (29), Ghana (41) and Botswana (42). The author also ignores the fact that, according to the same organization, this ranking for Bangladesh actually improved during the current administration (2008-2012) compared to the prior governments. So, using the same ‘credible’ sources as the author (i.e. Reporters without Borders), how can it be explained that the current government is cracking down on the press for their criticisms, as the article was trying to insinuate, and at the same time the overall raking for the freedom of press is improving in the country? The article also points out the recent killings of reporters in Bangladesh.
Journalism is indeed a dangerous occupation there, and many journalists were murdered in the past few decades, but how many (if any) of those murders were state sponsored? I fail to see the relevance of this anecdotal information in this article, unless the author is implying a link between these murders and the alleged state policy for media suppression. Anyone doing any bit of homework on this subject will know that many of these journalists in the past were killed, because of their secular views, by the same religious extremisms preached by Jamaat-e-Islami in which Mr. Ali is a prominent leader.
The article also refers to the criticisms against ICT made by certain individuals and organizations, but it fails to indicate the existing challenges for those criticisms. For instance, Mr. Stephen Rapp, the US ambassador at large for war crimes, was heavily criticized for recommending the ICT to adopt the Rome Statue, a legal framework for the ICC (International Criminal Court), when he clearly knew that the ICT is not an ‘international court’ but a domestic one, the statue did not have the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes that took place prior to 2002, and, most importantly, when his own country, United States, is neither a signatory member of the Rome Statue, nor is it compliant to many of its provisions. Human Rights Watch, another organization that the article quotes, was also criticized for publishing a report alleging Bangladesh government for intimidating defence witnesses at a time, long before the names of the witnesses were disclosed to the ICT and when the government or the prosecution team didn’t have any way of knowing who those defence witnesses are.
Similarly, the UN group for arbitrary detention, another group the article refers to, was also criticized to publish their report based on the claims from the defence team alone, without any known independent investigation on their part, when the Bangladesh government failed to respond to a letter with those allegations. So, while by referencing these criticisms the article shows how this lobbying campaign against justice is gaining steam in the international community, it fails to scrutinize or even question the legitimacy of any of those criticisms.
Many of the accused war criminals in ICT are current and former leaders of different political groups. But does that make these trials political? In order to understand that, one must look at the history of Bangladesh and the birth of this tribunal. Soon after Bangladesh won its independence in 1971, there were many outstanding accusations against the currently accused war criminals, so they fled the country to evade prosecution. The first war crimes tribunal was created under the 1973 act, which prosecuted and convicted many, between 1972 and 1975. Unfortunately, in 1975, with the murder of the national leader in a military coup, the subsequent dictators dismantled the tribunal and released all the war criminals, even the convicted ones. It was in this political atmosphere, many of the currently accused war criminals were able to return to Bangladesh, assimilate in the political arena to strengthen and legitimize the dictatorship.
After overthrowing the last dictator in 1990, democracy was resurrected in Bangladesh and the victims of 1971 could once again voice their demands to bring those perpetrators to justice. Slowly their voices were strengthened and this demand became a national outcry for the people of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, in the current political atmosphere, while BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), the other prominent party besides Awami League, is currently in a coalition with Jamaat-e-Islami, which was led by these accused war criminals, Awami League became the only hope to ask for justice for the victims of 1971. In 2008 national election, Awami League’s landslide victory was primarily contributed to this national mandate for bringing an end of impunity for the war criminals.
After the election, the current government amended the 1973 act, allowing more rights and civil liberties for the accused in accordance to the ICCPR, and then created this independent tribunal to fulfil their pre-election promise and to address this national mandate. The victims of 1971 can finally see some hope for justice after waiting 40 long years. So, even though the birth of this tribunal was only possible through a campaign for justice and a democratic political process, people who voted in 2008 election and expressed their demand through their ballots, do not think these trials to be politically motivated. In order to keep their promise, the Awami League took a huge risk considering the ominous political unrest, backlash and turmoil these trials can instigate, but we are still glad that they took that risk for the sake of justice and ending impunity. Now we can only hope that the administration will continue their support for the ICT and endure the storm clouds that are looming in the horizon.
Arman Rashid is a Toronto based writer, blogger and campaigner for justice for the crimes committed in 1971.