In March 2010, the government of Bangladesh established an International Crimes Tribunal to try those accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes in the war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. On November 20th, the first trial began.
U.S. Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp recently made his third trip to Bangladesh to help ensure that the trials are fair and transparent. He said the hundreds of thousands of victims deserve justice.
In March 2011, Ambassador Rapp drafted a series of recommendations suggesting ways that the rules for these war crimes trials could be amended to ensure fair and transparent proceedings. Some of these were incorporated, he said but regrettably, many were not.
Although the first trial is already under way, there is still much that can be done to ensure that justice is carried out. The judges, at the first opportunity, must define what the term "crimes against humanity" means. The term has been defined in the statutes and cases of international courts but has not been defined in Bangladesh.
Second, it is important to accord the same rights to the accused that are guaranteed to Bangladeshi citizens charged with other violent crimes. The accused must have the right to consult with their legal counsel, sufficient time and facilities to prepare their defense, and the right to challenge the legality of the process itself.
In addition, it is important that a witness protection system be developed in practice and available for both prosecution and defense witnesses. Finally, the legal proceedings must be accessible to all. Ideally, said Ambassador Rapp, the trial sessions should be broadcast on television or radio, or possibly shared through reports by independent observers that would show key testimony, arguments, and rulings.
"These trials," said Ambassador Rapp, "are of great importance to the victims" of the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. What happens in Bangladesh today will send a strong message that it is possible for a national system to bring those responsible for grave human rights abuses to justice. The United States will continue to work with all parties to improve this process to achieve justice in these historic trials.