WASHINGTON — The United States is sharpening its criticism of Bangladesh’s tribunal on war crimes after death sentences were upheld this week against two influential opposition leaders.
U.S. lawmakers overseeing foreign policy described the tribunal as “very flawed” and a means of political retribution. The State Department was less pointed, saying Friday that executions should not take place until it’s clear the trial process meets international standards.
More than 15 people, mostly leaders of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party, have been convicted of war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 independence war against Pakistan by two separate tribunals set up in 2010 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who says justice for victims’ families is overdue.
The Bangladesh government says that Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the war. While rights groups say atrocities were committed and there needs to be accountability, international doubts over the legal proceedings are intensifying.
On Wednesday, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court upheld death sentences against Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid of Jamaat-e-Islami, who were convicted in 2013 on charges including genocide and rape during the war.
Stephen Rapp, who until August served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador for war crimes, said it was “disturbing” that Chowdhury was denied the right to call alibi witnesses, including a former U.S. ambassador, to provide testimony that he was not present in Bangladesh at the time the alleged crimes were committed.
Human Rights Watch said the tribunal allowed the prosecution to call 41 witnesses, while Chowdhury’s defense was limited to four witnesses. The New York-based group said Mujahid was sentenced to death for instigating his subordinates to commit abuses, although no subordinates testified or were identified.
Hasina, leader of the Awami League party, denies the tribunal’s actions have been motivated by the South Asian nation’s bitterly divided politics, but leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee voiced concern that “democratic space is shrinking” in Bangladesh amid “a growing climate of violence, fear and self-censorship.”
In a letter Tuesday to the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia, the lawmakers also criticized Bangladeshi leaders who allege a political conspiracy behind a spate of violent attacks by Muslim extremists this year on secular writers and bloggers. Victims include American-Bangladeshi writer Avijit Roy, who was hacked to death in Dhaka in February.
Such extremist violence was once rare in Bangladesh, which is mostly Muslim but with a strong secular tradition.
Bangladesh was the eastern part of Pakistan until the 1971 war of independence that arose after the military leaders in the west of Pakistan responded to a crushing election victory by the east-based Awami League party — then led by Hasina’s father — with a bloody crackdown. That culminated in a war with neighboring India that Pakistan lost, leading to the creation of Bangladesh. President Richard Nixon was accused of condoning the actions of Pakistan, a U.S. ally.
Notwithstanding that fraught history, Bangladesh over the decades has forged significant ties with the U.S., a major aid donor and export market. However, there have been strains during Hasina’s tenure over her treatment of political opponents and civil society activists.
Since mid-2013, the U.S. has suspended duty-free trade benefits to Bangladesh to pressure it to improve labor standards and workplace safety after hundreds of people died in disasters at garment factories.
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