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Dhaka Tribune

Justice under siege?

Update : 16 Jul 2013, 05:00 AM

The International Crimes Tribunal has found Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh former chief Ghulam Azam guilty on all five charges of conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetment, and failure to prevent murder during the 1971 Liberation War.

He was sentenced to 90 years imprisonment in the much-awaited verdict announced yesterday. This is indeed a historic moment as the nation has been waiting for over forty one years to see justice being delivered.

As the head of the erstwhile Jamaat-e-Islami East Pakistan that set up paramilitary death squads Razakars, Al-Badrs and Al-Shams, Azam was considered to be instrumental in the genocide, rape, and arson committed by the collaborators.  It would be no exaggeration to state that in our national psyche Azam personified the gruesome crimes against humanity carried out as a form of ethnic cleansing for Bengalis fighting for liberation.

Azam’s case was indeed the case of all cases in the ICT.  Though there is some disappointment that he was not sentenced to death, the conviction is imperative to establish rule of law and reverse the culture of impunity.

The verdict leaves no doubt that Azam was able to evade capital punishment by virtue of his age as opposed to innocence. It is important to bear in mind that the scaled down verdict does not imply he was able to disprove the charge, rather the opposite.

Azam will go down history as a villain who was convicted of five out of five charges of atrocities during our liberation struggle. This is our moral victory over the anti-liberation forces.

However, the public reactions from Shahbagh and Jamaat following the verdict is disconcerting. Shahbagh has threatened to continue a “sit-in” till capital punishment is given to Azam, while Jamaat has called a hartal to protest the verdict.

Of course, no one is denying that both sides have every right to reject the verdict, but this has to happen in the course of law. There is simply no room for public pressure or rogue violence in the justice system.

It may be argued that Shahbagh was in response to Jamaat violence holding the judiciary hostage, but can two wrongs make a right? Despite the obvious differences in moral compulsions between both sides, the irony is that Shahbagh and Jamaat activism post-verdict disrespects, undermines, and challenges the rule of law. The proper functioning of a legal system requires courts to deliver verdicts without pressure from either the petitioners or defendants.

While there is overwhelming public support for the broader Shahbagh goal to seek justice, its “sit-in” demanding a particular verdict - i.e. capital punishment - is not legally defensible.  Though it can be argued that the people are “petitioners” in the case and have every right to seek the highest punishment, let us be clear that it is one thing to hope for a verdict and another thing to demand it. There may be a thin line, but there is an important difference -  the former is a quest for justice, while the latter is a form of blackmail.

The judiciary seems increasingly under siege and this does not augur well for rule of law. By demanding a particular verdict, Shahbagh is undermining confidence in the rule of law. This is, ironically, not very dissimilar from what Jamaat has tried to achieve by orchestrating violence and disorder during verdicts.

We do not expect anything better from a group like Jamaat that was opposed to our liberation, but we would definitely want to see an idealistic youth-led movement for justice like Shahbagh uphold the independence and sanctity of the judiciary.

Simply put, we expect better from Shahbagh.

Let us also not forget that Jamaat and its ilk have a long-term goal to undermine our secular courts, not only in respect to this tribunal but also to impose theocratic Sharia law. Shahbagh does not need to join this bandwagon and fall into Jamaat’s trap.

The most important thing to remember here that the most liberal cause - seeking justice - cannot be implemented in an illiberal manner. We must not challenge the basic premise of the legal system that a court decides a verdict based on the merits of the arguments it heard, and not popular support (or the lack of it) of either the plaintiff or defendant.

Though Shahbagh’s campaign for justice is a worthy cause, the legal system does not allow a group to have a sit-in until a verdict is delivered as demanded.

Shahbagh can play a far more important role in forming public resistance against violence by Jamaat and delegitimising religious extremists from the public scene. Jamaat must not be allowed to have a free rein in creating public disorder to save its leaders.

Let us learn to respect the rule of law and legal process as a nation. We need to take recourse of the law for the appeals process instead of taking the law into our own hands.

We expect Shahbagh to take the lead here as opposed to discredited groups opposed to our independence and rule of law. May good sense prevail on both sides to establish rule of law. The judiciary must not be under siege no matter how worthy the cause may be.

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