By Abhilaksh Grover, Assistant Contributor
Earlier this month, Judge Mohammad Akhtaruzzman sentenced 152 Bangladesh paramilitary soldiers to death, for their role in the 2009 mutiny. This unprecedented move raised important questions about the right to fair trial of those concerned and about Bangladesh’s international obligations.
The trial began in August 2011, with around 823 force members and 23 civilians charged for mass atrocities including murder, rape and arson during the mutiny. The trials evoked a critical reaction from international organizations such as the United Nations (“UN”), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) for improper legal representation and miscarriage of justice. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, condemned the trials while at the same time describing the mutineers’ crimes ‘utterly reprehensible and heinous’.
The mutiny took place in February 2009 in Dhaka, when members of a paramilitary force, Bangladesh Rifles (now Border Guard Bangladesh) revolted against their superiors. The violence led to the killing of 74 people, including 57 army officers. The mutiny broke out after the soldiers demanded increased pay and better conditions. Although it is difficult to pinpoint who orchestrated the revolt, insufficient food subsidies, lack of paid vacation and resentment against superiors are the suspected main causes of the rebellion. Additionally, the soldiers wanted to be assigned to UN peacekeeping missions, which were restricted only to soldiers of the Bangladesh Army.
About 6000 soldiers of the paramilitary force were convicted over the mutiny in special army courts. However, the military judges were not allowed to prosecute murder cases and could only impose maximum sentences of 7 years. The trial for 823 soldiers was then shifted to a civilian court to prosecute the murder charges. The verdict, which was delivered on November 5, 2013, sentenced 152 soldiers to death and further convicted 161 soldiers to life imprisonment. Another 262 defendants were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with 270 being acquitted. Judge Akhtraruzzman found the testimony of witnesses to be terrifying, ‘the slain people were not merely killed, the dead bodies did not get the respect they deserved according to law.’ The verdict was met with widespread outrage.
It is believed that a number of suspects, detained for their alleged role in the mutiny, died in custody and there are reports of widespread torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. As such, the trial may be in complete contravention of Bangladesh’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”). Article 10 of the ICCPR mandates that detainees be treated with humanity and inherent dignity of the human person. Ms. Pillay has already sought an independent investigation into the custodial deaths and further mandated the results to be made public.
Bangladesh has also ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture (“UNCAT”), and Article 15 of the UNCAT prohibits evidence procured through torture to be admissible in any proceedings. If the reports of torture are verified, it will be a significant blow to Bangladesh’s legal system. The November 5 verdict not only raised questions over capital punishment, it also brought the entire proceedings to the limelight, which might jeopardize Bangladesh’s position under international law.
Although, the death sentence will still need to be confirmed by higher courts of appeal, the decision elicited widespread international criticism. Mr. Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director said, ‘Justice has not been served with today’s ruling, which if carried out, will only result in 152 more human rights violations.’ A similar view was echoed by Mr. Tejshree Thapa of HRW.
This is not the first time that activists raised questions over legal proceedings in Bangladesh. These organizations previously criticized the trials conducted by the International Criminal Tribunal (“ICT”). The ICT was set up to investigate the atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. Ms Pillay, expressed concern over the ICT stating that ‘[t]he ICT should be a very important means to tackle impunity for mass atrocities committed in 1971, and to provide redress to the victims who have had a long and difficult road to justice, but it is important that the proceedings meet the highest standards if they are to reinforce the rule of law in Bangladesh and the fight against impunity in the broader region.’
Although HRW had previously urged Bangladesh to ensure fair trials for the suspects of the mutiny, the judgment seems to have gone in a completely different direction. However, it raised a couple of interesting questions. It remains to be seen, whether the human rights organizations can be successful in instituting a fair investigation into the trial and whether such an investigation could lead to a conflict between the Bangladesh’s municipal law and its international obligations.