Democratic backsliding in Bangladesh

The news of a new round of violent attacks in Bangladesh underscores a deteriorating security risk the world can no longer ignore. Last week in Dhaka, groups of men stabbed two prominent secular publishers, leaving one dead and the other in critical condition. Western intelligence agencies have warned the government that terrorists linked to so-called Islamic State are targeting foreigners and are set upon bringing increasing terror to Bangladesh.

The ruling Awami League and religious extremists are fomenting civil war while the rest of the country—especially the legitimate political opposition—is caught in the middle of violence and oppression.

For those who have been watching Bangladesh closely, it is clear that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has abandoned politics BDdemocracy as she continues to use the government and courts to eliminate political opponents and consolidate her grip on power. The so-called Parliamentary opposition is supine and ineffective.

Hasina’s continued suppression of legitimate dissent only increases the likelihood of violence. Suppressing a real political process encourages extremists, whose rhetoric incites violence.

In the coming days, Bangladesh’s current state of unrest will only grow worse if Hasina continues to abandon the rule of law by allowing the execution of two opposition leaders. She has long given up listening to the people of Bangladesh or respecting human rights. The British and US governments and the broader international community must immediately pressure her to stop these executions and reform the government of her country. She is dragging Bangladesh inexorably towards an unwelcome choice between authoritarian and mob rule.

The so-called International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) is at the heart of oppression and unrest in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Hasina uses the ICT to imprison and in some cases execute opposition party leaders instead of allowing the ICT to fulfill its purpose of prosecuting crimes from the 1971 war. As Amnesty International recently stated, the ICT fails to meet international standards for a fair trial.

The ICT is one of the fundamental reasons that Bangladesh is descending into violence. Decisions by the ICT have led to surges in violence at the announcement of verdicts and executions. The world cannot stand by and let this happen once again.

One of the prisoners facing execution, Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, is a leader in the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. During the ICT trial, Chowdhury was prevented from calling all the defense witnesses he was advised by his lawyers were necessary.

The ICT did not allow 26 crucial defense witnesses to testify or submit affidavits attesting that Chowdhury was in Pakistan during the war of independence in 1971 when his alleged crimes were committed in Bangladesh. The witnesses include a former Prime Minister of Pakistan and a former US ambassador. The Bangladesh Government must stop these executions and provide Chowdhury a fair and just trial.

To institute the rule of law in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Hasina must immediately take the following steps to turn the ICT into a court that is truly independent and international:

Convene a reconstituted, internationally sanctioned and supervised war crimes tribunal

Impose a moratorium on all executions ordered by the ICT

Allow a fully independent inquiry into all ICT judgments

Halt all current trials until the above policies are implemented

Nothing less will do. At present the opinion of the world’s jurists condemns Bangladesh for ignoring internationally recognized rule of law values.

Prime Minister Hasina must now seek reconciliation with those values. Otherwise Bangladesh will continue down a path to one-party government, authoritarianism or mob rule.

By Lord Carlile of Berriew CBE QC

Lord Carlile of Berriew, CBE, QC is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He was the British government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation from 2001 until 2011.