UN urges Bangladesh to ensure fair trials for past crimes
New York, Feb 8 : Two independent United Nations human rights experts Thursday stressed that justice for past crimes in Bangladesh requires fair trials, after voicing concern at recent sentences, including the death penalty, handed down in cases that did not ensure due process.
The International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh recently sentenced Abdul Kalam Azad to death, following a trial conducted in absentia that did not provide for all the guarantees of a fair trial and due process, states a news release issued by the UN human rights office (OHCHR).
Then on Feb 5, the Tribunal sentenced Abdul Kader Molla to life imprisonment. Judicial proceedings are underway in several other cases and there is a risk that the defendants could also be sentenced to death.
"Given the historic importance of these trials and the possible application of the death penalty, it is vitally important that all defendants before the Tribunal receive a fair trial," said the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul.
The Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal was established by the Government in March 2010 to try and punish any person accused of committing atrocities, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the South Asian nation, including during the country's 1971 independence war.
"The Tribunal is an important platform to address serious crimes from the past, which makes it all the more important that it respects the basic elements of fair trial and due process," the experts stated.
Heyns voiced alarm at the fair trial and due process concerns raised during proceedings that led to the imposition of the death penalty against Azad, including that the trial was conducted in absentia.
"International law requires compliance with the most stringent fair trial and due process guarantees in cases where death sentences are imposed," he stressed. "Capital punishment may be imposed only following proceedings that give all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial and due process, at least equal to those stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a State party."
Knaul said she is concerned by questions that have been raised about the impartiality of judges and prosecution services of the Tribunal, as well as their independence from the executive.
"Witnesses and lawyers for the defence have also complained about an atmosphere of hostility, intimidation and harassment," she added.
"Due process requires at a minimum that defendants are able to speak freely with their counsel, have adequate time to conduct their defence, and the ability to call witnesses to speak on their behalf," Knaul said. "The principle of equality of arms should be respected at all stages of the proceedings."
The experts also stressed that any shortcomings in the trial proceedings should be carefully examined during any appeal. "A credible appeal process also constitutes an imperative component of fair trial guarantees, particularly in instances where the death penalty has been imposed," they noted.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.