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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Protect ICT witnesses, urges HRW

Update : 24 Dec 2013, 07:20 AM

Human Rights Watch said the Bangladeshi authorities should urgently set up an effective mechanism to protect witnesses in cases before the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). 

“War crimes trials have become flashpoints for political tension and violence in Bangladesh,” said Brad Adams, Asia director on December 23.

“The killing of a prosecution witness will frighten past and future war crimes trial witnesses, and some may choose not to testify,” Adams added in the statement.

The statement was issued following the attack incidents on ICT witnesses.  

He died on December 10, 2013, after being attacked in his home. Howlader appeared in the case against Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a leading figure in the Jamaat-e-Islaami party.

Howlader’s family members reported to Human Rights Watch that the attacker had first attempted to “chop” Howlader’s wife, seriously injuring her in the arm, before proceeding to attack Howlader with a machete.

But an initial police statement claimed that it was a botched burglary. Police subsequently said preliminary investigations suggest that the attackers were Jamaat members, but inquiries were ongoing. Six people have been arrested in this regard.

However, Jamaat has denied any involvement in the attack.

“Witnesses, who often live in remote villages, are owed a serious protection program before, during, and after they give testimony to the court,” Adams said in the statement adding: “The state has failed Howlader and his family. A genuine witness protection system should not ask victims to choose between their safety and feeding their families.”

In another attack on a witness, Ranjit Kumar Nath, who testified against Jamaat Secretary General Ali Mohammed Mujaheed, reported that petrol bombs had been flung at his shop and at his home around midnight on December 15. His shop was partially burned, but the bomb at his home did not explode. Like Howlader, Nath had previously reported threats against him relating to his testimony. Although he had filed an official complaint, he was not given any police protection.

Human Rights Watch has received reports of threats against other witnesses. Bangladesh media have reported attacks on the houses of Justice Fazle Kabir and Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, who were on the panel of judges that sentenced Jamaat leader Abdul Qader Mollah to death.

On December 10, ICT judge Kabir, commenting specifically on Howlader’s death, called on the prosecution to ensure witness security, saying that, “It is not acceptable in an independent country that a witness is killed for testifying in the court.”

Human Rights Watch and others urged for the establishment of a formal witness protection program before the trials began in 2010. Officials claim a program has been established, but it is ad hoc and informal, resulting in weaknesses that contributed to Howlader’s death.  Under the ICT Registrar, the authorities should establish an impartial office, tasked specifically with protection and support services to witnesses during pre-trial, trial, and post-trial stages, following on models established by international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court. In order for such an office to be effective, however, it must be adequately resourced and officers working in the unit should be well trained in assessing protection concerns of witnesses referred to them by either party or the bench.

Amendments made to the ICT Act in 2011 authorised the tribunal to ensure the physical safety of witnesses, including ordering in camera proceedings if necessary, but stopped short of setting up a formal witness protection program. Human Rights Watch also called for an independent, transparent, and speedy investigation into the killing of Howlader. This attack and reports of threats against other witnesses are likely to have a chilling effect on other witnesses, particularly in the charged climate in Bangladesh over the conduct of the trials carried out by the ICT, reads the statement.

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