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The court, called the International Crimes Tribunal, is a domestic set-up with no United Nations oversight or involvement.

Edit Date:11/21/2011 12:00:00 AM

 

Bangladesh's 1971 war crimes trial opens

DHAKA — The first trial of a suspected collaborator from Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence began on Sunday, in a widely-criticised court process that the government says will finally bring traitors to justice.

Delawar Hossain Sayedee, now a senior figure in the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party, stood in the dock as the war crimes tribunal opened in Dhaka with a lengthy statement from the chief prosecutor.

Ghulam Arif Tipoo listed the crimes that Sayedee is alleged to have committed during the war, including the murder of nearly 60 people when he was in charge of a militia that opposed the country splitting from Pakistan.

Sayedee is charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, murder, rape, religious persecution and enslavement. If found guilty, the 71-year-old could be hanged.

Tipoo said Sayedee's trial was essential for "the establishment of rule of law, democracy and human rights in Bangladesh and it is key to the future of the nation".

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina -- the daughter of independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman -- established the tribunal after she returned to power in 2009, but it has been accused of targeting her political opponents.

Sayedee has been held in detention along with four other suspects from his party and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Both parties have dismissed the court as a government "show trial", while the New York-based group Human Rights Watch has said its legal procedures fall short of international standards.

Prosecutor Tipoo said the court would be fair.

"The whole of Bangladesh was turned into mass grave during that time," he said. "Under this circumstance, the trial is not aimed at political or individual axe-grinding."

He told AFP that the trial was "a landmark event for the country as it brings an end to decades of culture of impunity".

But Sayedee's counsel Tajul Islam cast doubt over the court's independence, alleging that the senior judge was biased and that the defence had been given only minimum time to prepare.

"We've told the court that if Justice Nizamul Huq remains as the chief of the tribunal, there is no chance we'll get justice," he said.

One British lawyer who was recruited to defend Sayedee said he was tailed by security operatives on a trip to Bangladesh and not allowed back into the country to participate in the trial.

John Cammegh wrote in the New York Times that the court was "a terrible warning of the way in which the ideals of universal justice and accountability can be abused".

He said suspects were denied access to legal advice, local defence lawyers and witnesses had been harassed, and that prosecutors were already boasting that a guilty verdict was guaranteed by the end of the year.

The court, called the International Crimes Tribunal, is a domestic set-up with no United Nations oversight or involvement.

Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which was called East Pakistan until 1971, has struggled to come to terms with its violent birth.

The current government says up to three million people were killed in the war, many murdered by locals collaborating with Pakistani forces.

The 1971 war began after tens of thousands of people were killed in Dhaka when then-West Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight, a campaign intended to deter Bangladeshis from seeking independence.

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