It seems that the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal can find only one way to respond to criticism of proceedings that clearly fall short of international standards: charge critics with contempt of court.
The court sought contempt charges against Human Rights Watch last year after the group criticized its proceedings. Last month, the court charged David Bergman, a Bangladesh-based British journalist married to a prominent Bangladeshi human rights lawyer, Sara Hossain, with contempt for questioning some proceedings of the court in his blog.
The tribunal is only harming its own credibility with such charges. Set up to provide a long overdue reckoning of the horrific crimes committed during the country’s struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971, the court has given the appearance of acting more as an instrument of partisan revenge than as a forum for impartial justice. Any criticism of it is reflexively taken as criticism of the governing Awami League and, by absurd extension, of the emergence of Bangladesh itself as an independent nation.
The court has been particularly sensitive about the number of Bangladeshis killed in that struggle. The official number in Bangladesh is three million, but while scholars agree that far too many were murdered in 1971, some believe the number is lower. It is a measure of the court’s undue sensitivity that one of the contempt charges leveled against Mr. Bergman is that he merely reported this dispute.
The court also has tried people in absentia, without the benefit of a credible defense, and then sentenced them to death. It is an absurd irony that another of the contempt charges leveled against Mr. Bergman is for the regret he expressed that the trial, conviction and death sentence against Chowdhury Mueen Uddin, a British resident, took place in absentia. The court had based its charges against Mr. Uddin largely on information revealed in Mr. Bergman’s 1995 documentary film, “War Crimes File.”
Embarrassed by reports about Mr. Bergman’s plight, the International Crimes Tribunal has instituted a gag order against the press. Muzzling the press will only further erode the reputation of the court, whose contempt for international standards of justice appears to know no bounds.