A Bangladesh court is expected to rule Monday on whether an award-winning British journalist is guilty of contempt after he questioned the assertion that three million people died in the 1971 independence war.
In a case seen as a test of the country’s commitment to free speech, judges will decide if David Bergman acted unlawfully by doubting the official version of one of the most contentious issues in Bangladesh’s short history.
Bergman is the author of a popular blog about Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court which has found several opposition supporters guilty of mass murder over their role in the 1971 conflict.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose late father was Bangladesh’s independence icon, has justified the war crimes trials on the grounds that the scale of the bloodshed demands that perpetrators be brought to justice.
Although most of the deaths have been blamed on troops loyal to the regime in Islamabad, Hasina’s government says Bangladeshi militias manned by Islamists were behind some of the most brutal killings, including the massacre of intellectuals.
Critics however say her government has deliberately exaggerated the number of people killed as a way of intimidating her opponents and of countering unease from abroad about a process which lacks any international oversight.
If the government’s official toll is taken as fact, it means that an average 11,000 people died every day in the nine-month conflict which saw the former territory of east Pakistan secede from the regime in Islamabad.
In a post in November 2011, Bergman questioned whether there was evidence that supported the official figure and referred to other studies suggesting the real figure may be much lower.
Most independent estimates say the actual toll would be hundreds of thousands.
Two years later lawyer Abul Kalam Azad filed a petition, saying Bergman’s piece on the war toll and two other articles were in contempt of court.
The court accepted the plea and initiated the case against him in April after rejecting his assertion the articles were “accurate”.
“The three million death toll in the war is a settled issue. For 43 years there was no issue about these figure. Yet David has tried to unsettle it by raising questions,” Azad told AFP ahead of Monday’s hearing.
While the 49-year-old Bergman declined to comment for fear of prejudicing his case, analysts said the case seriously undermines reporters’ bid to highlight independent narratives of the war.
“This case is very important for the country’s freedom of speech,” said Tibra Ali, the Canada-based editor of the popular Bengali blogsite Alal O Dulal.
“Our historical narratives have become very politicised. This case is very important for depoliticisation of these narratives. We want an atmosphere in which anyone can probe or research our history without any fear.“
Critics said Bergman, who also writes for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, is being prosecuted for highlighting alleged shortcomings of the tribunal which has so far sentenced seven top opposition figures to death.
“Clearly some people don’t like Bergman’s work. But they tend to forget that he had done a great service to Bangladesh by working on a documentary film on war crimes,” said Ali.
Ali was referring to Bergman’s groundbreaking work exposing alleged war criminals who took refuge in the United Kingdom. The film won a British television award in 1995.
Bergman’s lawyers have argued that the articles at the centre of the case were “accurate, fair, and logical” and his comments about the court “fell well within the permitted limits of fair criticism”.
They said the case “was not maintainable and an abuse of process”.
Bergman who is an editor of local English-language daily New Age, has been living in Bangladesh for more than a decade. He is married to a top human rights lawyer.