External Affairs

Defence Witnesses from Pakistan Seek to Testify in Bangla War Crimes Case

The old High Court building in Dhaka, now the site of the International Crimes Tribunal. Credit: Wikipedia

The old High Court building in Dhaka, now the site of the International Crimes Tribunal. Credit: Wikipedia

Dhaka: A former caretaker prime minister and the chairperson of a leading media group are amongst a group of four witnesses from Pakistan urging the Bangladesh courts to allow them to testify on behalf of an opposition leader who is facing the death sentence for crimes against humanity and genocide, The Wire can reveal.

The witnesses claim that Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was present with them in Karachi – and later in Lahore – when the offences he is alleged to have committed during the 1971 Independence War of Bangladesh, took place.

The four witnesses say that they had intended to testify on behalf of Chowdhury during the trial, but the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court based in Dhaka, had restricted to five the number of witnesses that his defence lawyers could summon. It was finally limited to four.

Prosecution lawyers had earlier summonsed 41 witnesses, and there had been no limitation imposed upon them.

The defence witnesses subsequently provided sworn affidavits that were submitted to the court. However in its judgment the Tribunal ruled the statements to be inadmissible, as did the appellate division which, at the end of last month, upheld the death penalty decision.

In its judgment, the appellate division did not question the Tribunal’s restriction of the number of defence witnesses.

“When an accused person is here [in Karachi], and I am receiving him at the airport, I am meeting him on most days, and knowing that he is here when it is claimed he committed offences elsewhere, and it is written in our affidavits, it is very strange that no one called us to give evidence,’ said Muneeb Arjmand Khan, who insists he collected Salahuddin from Karachi airport on 29 March 1971.

‘I would be willing to come now,’ he said.

Another of the witnesses, Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a former national assembly and cabinet minister who states that Chowdhury stayed in his house in Lahore between mid-April and October 1971 also said that he thought that his evidence was too important to ignore.

“We should have been given an opportunity to say what we had to say in a court of law and be cross examined and be bombarded with any kind of question that the prosecution wanted,’ said Khakwani.

‘And if I could testify now in Bangladesh I would come. There is no issue,’ he added.

Amber Haroon Saigol, who is chairperson of Dawn media group, whose uncle is said to have met Bangladesh’s independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the airport in London after he was released from a Pakistan jail at the end of war, also said that she would come to Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi opposition politician Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, the only BNP leader convicted for war crimes, could face the death penalty. Credit: Wikipedia

Bangladeshi opposition politician Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, the only BNP leader convicted for war crimes, could face the death penalty. Credit: Wikipedia

‘Salauddin stayed at our family house for two or three weeks from the end of March to mid-April 1971, and then went onto Lahore,’ she said. ‘It is the truth and to save someone’s life of course I would come to Bangladesh to testify if the court allowed it.’

Since the four offences for which Chowdhury has been sentenced to death took place in mid-April 1971, where the accused was at this period of time is particularly crucial.

In 2010, the newly elected Awami League government set up an International Crimes Tribunal to prosecute those Bangladeshis alleged to have committed crimes during the 1971 war in support of the Pakistani military.

So far the Tribunal has convicted 24 people, most of whom are leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party which in 1971 had supported the goals of the Pakistan military. Two of their leaders have so far received a death penalty.

Chowdhury would be the first BNP leader to receive the death penalty.  His lawyers have until Thursday, 15 October to file a review application of the appellate division’s decision which upheld his death sentence, however it is very unusual for a review to be successful.

The International Crimes Tribunal has from the start been bedeviled with controversy including the alleged abduction by law enforcement agencies of a defence witness from outside the tribunal gates and the leaking of Skype conversations of a former Tribunal chairman which suggested prosecutorial collusion and government influence. The Tribunal chairman subsequently resigned.

Although the tribunal has been seriously criticised by human rights organisations outside the country, proceedings however seem to have had widespread support in Bangladesh.

The charges against Chowdhury

On October 1, 2013, the 3-member International Crimes Tribunal convicted Chowdhury of 9 offences involving crimes against humanity and genocide in and around Chittagong during the country’s 1971 war of Independence.

For four of these offences, committed within the first month of the Pakistan army crackdown on 25 March, Chowdhury was given the death penalty.

Three of these offences were committed on April  13, 1971 – the murder of  a well known Hindu social worker Nutun Chandra in the village of Kundeshwari, the murder of four men in Sultanpur and the killing of 50 people in the Hindu populated village of Unsatturpara.

The fourth, which concerned complicity in the abduction and murder of the founder of the Chittagong branch of Awami League, Sheikh Mozaffor Ahmed, along with his son, was committed four days later on April 17, 1971.

The defence case, as presented through the four witnesses who were permitted to testify, was that Chowdhury was not present in Chittagong at the time these offences were committed.

Qayum Reza Chowdhury, who after the 1971 war became Sheikh Mujib’s press secretary, told the court that he dropped the accused, his cousin, at Tejgaon airport on 29 March 1971 to take a flight to Karachi, and that, just over a week later on 8 April, went himself to the city, along with two friends, Nizamuddin and another well known businessman.

Nizamuddin, a friend of the accused, confirmed that he had travelled with Qayum and Salman Rahman on 8 or 9 April 1971 to Karachi, and that after a few days, that he had met the accused at the businessman’s house.

Abdul Momen Chowdhury, who at that time was a diplomat based in Pakistan, said that in the second or third week of April 1971 he had gone to Karachi and met the accused for the first time.

In its judgment, the tribunal dismissed this evidence citing eye-witnesses who had confirmed that the accused was present at the scene of the alleged offences, as well as inconsistencies in the defence witness testimony.

However, because of the witness restriction order, the defence were unable to summon six further witnesses, five of them from Pakistan and one from the United States, who would have supported this testimony.

‘The court should at least hear us out’

This included Muhammad Osman Siddique, a former United States ambassador, who said in a sworn affidavit that he was on the same flight as the accused, whom he had known from school days when he flew to Karachi.

In another statement, Karachi-based Muneeb Arjmand Khan, also a friend of the accused since their school days, stated that he ‘received’ Chowdhury from the airport and took him to ‘Mr Yusuf Haroon’s residence, known as Seafield.’

He also says that he was also amongst those who took Chowdhury to Karachi airport when he moved to Lahore ‘after about 3 weeks’ to go to Punjab university.

Khan said that ‘it was very unjust in this case’ for him and the other witnesses not to be have been summoned.

‘It would be very important for the court to call anyone who has given such an affidavit as mine. The court should have tried us out, and we would have answered their questions. We are not making anything  up. What we have to say is the truth. Our testimony would have changed the whole proceedings of the court,’ he said

‘It is physically not possible for a person to be in two places at the same time.’ Khan went on. ‘Either the witnesses who have shown up for the prosecution are right or those like me who have given the affidavits are right. It is for the court to decide, but they have to first listen to us before they decide.’

Amber Haroon Siddiqui, now the chairperson of Dawn media, confirmed in her affidavit that when Salauddin arrived in Karachi, he stayed at her family house, (known as ‘Seafield’) for about three weeks. She said, ‘We used to have discussions at the dinner table where [Salauddin Quader Chowdhury] would join me, my sisters and my parents.’

She told The Wire that she had earlier been willing to come to testify to ‘stand by my story’ but always had doubts about whether the court would allow witnesses from Pakistan.

In his affidavit to the Tribunal, Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a former member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, said that ‘[Salauddin] arrived at Karachi a few days after … 26th March 1971 …. [and] was picked up from the airport by our mutual friend Muneeb Khan and I spoke to both of them once they reached Mr Yusuf Haroon’s [the father of Amber] residence called Seafield House.’

He then says that when the accused moved to Lahore so that he could seek admission at Punjab university, the accused stayed ‘in our family house … where he stayed with me throughout till we left for London in October 1971.’

Khakwani told The Wire that, ‘We all wanted to be witnesses in the court, but we were never called by the Tribunal. …. What can one say about the fairness of trial [when witnesses like us are not called]? It was a very unfair trial, and I am surprised that court of appeal is not giving relief.’

Mohammed Mian Soomro, who became a  caretaker prime minister of Pakistan in 2007, told The Wire that assuming his health was up to it, he would also come to Bangladesh to testify “the truth” of what he had written in his affidavit – that he saw ‘Salauddin on many days whilst he was in Karachi during the first few weeks in April before he went to Lahore.’

David Bergman is a writer based in Bangladesh.  He also runs the Bangladesh Politico and Bangladesh War Crimes blogs. Follow him on @davidbangladesh