Three prosecution witnesses were murdered in 2013, while the house and shop of another witness were bombed
The necessity for a law to protect the witnesses and victims who testify in war crimes cases returned to the spotlight when Shumon Zahid was found dead in Dhaka.
Despite repeated demands by various stakeholders and the murder of witnesses since 2010 – when the government set up a special tribunal to try suspected war criminals – Bangladesh is yet to formulate such a law.
Three prosecution witnesses were murdered in 2013, while the house and shop of another witness were bombed. The village home of Justice ATM Fazle Kabir, the then chief of the International Crimes Tribunal 1, was also bombed that year.
Fifty-two-year-old Shumon’s body was recovered from a railway track on Thursday morning with his throat slit. Police suggested that he may have died in a train accident.
His family members say they suspect Shumon, the son of martyred journalist Selina Parvin, might have been killed by people who had threatened him for testifying against Al-Badr leaders: Chowdhury Mueen Uddin and Ashrafuzzaman Khan.
• Wahidul Alam Junu, a key witness against war criminal Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, had gone missing in February 2013. He was found dead in Chittagong under suspicious circumstances hours later.
• On March 10, 2013, Ahmed Miraz, a key prosecution witness against former Jamaat chief Ghulam Azam, was killed by unidentified assailants. He was the brother of renowned musician and freedom fighter Ahmed Imtiaz Bulbul.
• Prosecution witness Mustafa Hawlader, who testified against war criminal Delwar Hossain Sayedee, was killed on December 8, 2013. Unidentified miscreants entered Mustafa’s home by digging through the mud floor at midnight and hit his head with a crowbar.
• On December 12, 2013, unidentified miscreants hurled a Molotov cocktail and four improvised bombs at the village home of former ICT 1 chief Fazle Kabir in Chapainawabganj Sadar upazila.
• On December 15, 2013, Molotov cocktails were hurled at the house and shop of Ranjit Kumar Nath, who testified against war criminal Jamaat leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid.
Shahriar Kabir, who heads the Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee, said the failure to protect witnesses was “quite unfortunate.”
“Witness protection is very important,” he told the Dhaka Tribune, adding that the deaths of the war crime witnesses should be investigated properly.
“There should be proper security arrangements for protecting not only the witnesses but also the judges and people associated with the process,” he added.
He also emphasized reforming the tribunal before the trial of Jamaat-e-Islami—which openly opposed Bangladesh’s independence for its role during the Liberation War.
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman Kazi Reazul Hoque said a witness protection law was needed to safeguard the witnesses of war crimes and other cases.
“No matter where you are testifying, the risk of harassment always remains. The enactment of the law is urgent since those accused of war crimes are [usually] powerful,” he said.
The International Crimes Tribunal Rules of Procedure, 2010, has a separate section to deal with the witness and victim protection.
Section 58A (1) of the procedure says the ICT, by its own initiative or an application by either party, may pass necessary orders directing the concerned authorities of the government to ensure protection, privacy and well-being of the witnesses and/or victims.
“This process will be confidential and the other side will not be notified,” it says.
Section 58A (2) says the government shall arrange accommodation of witness(s)/victim(s), if so desired to ensure security and surveillance during the stay of witnesses/victims as directed by the Tribunal— and take necessary measure to escort the witnesses/victims to the courtroom by the members of the law enforcement agency.
The NHRC chief also said the witness protection law shall also be applied to human rights defenders and it is the duty of the state to ensure everyone’s protection.
The Law Ministry in 2011 drafted the ‘Witness Protection Act 2011’ but it is yet to see the light of the day.
Law Minister Anisul Huq said the protection of the witnesses in war crimes cases was the state’s responsibility—and noted that the law enforcement agencies had been providing protection to the witnesses whenever they were asked to.
“We need to protect them in any way necessary. We have been emphasizing witness protection for a long time and are considering formulating a law because of the threats made against the witnesses,” he said, replying to a question.
The minister, however, failed to come up with a timeframe for when the law will be enacted.