Last month, a war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh handed down a guilty verdict against Islamist party leader Ghulam Azam, its fifth conviction of a prominent political figure for involvement in atrocities committed during the country’s 1971 war for independence. In an email interview, Zakia Afrin, an adjunct professor in international law at Golden Gate University who focuses on intra-state conflict and peacebuilding, discussed the state of Bangladesh’s war crimes trials and the lessons they yield for other contexts.
WPR: How well have Bangladesh's war crimes trials succeeded in terms of providing a fair and legitimate legal process?
Zakia Afrin: As a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1969, Bangladesh is under a duty both to provide justice to victims of crimes including genocide and crimes against humanity and to provide fair trials to those accused of such crimes. On one hand, setting up the tribunal to punish perpetrators of mass killings and other injustices during Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 has provided victims with redress. On the other, the trials have incorporated significant pre-trial, trial and post-trial rights of the accused, namely the right to counsel, the right to cross-examine witnesses and the right to appeal against the judgment to a higher court. Keeping in mind the limitations of resources of a developing country and the ambiguous state of international standards, it can be argued that the transparent, public and competent trials of the war criminals in Bangladesh have proceeded in a manner consistent with Bangladesh’s international obligations. Despite their undeniable challenges, the trials are fair and part of a legitimate legal process.