In a major development, parliament has passed an amendment empowering the war crimes tribunals to hold trial of any organisation for committing crimes against humanity during the Liberation War.
The amendment, a key demand of campaigners for the war crimes trials and the Shahbagh protesters, was made during passage of the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973, amendment bill yesterday.
The bill also empowered the government, informants and complainants to appeal against any verdict of the war crimes tribunals with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
President Zillur Rahman will now sign the amendment bill and the changes would have retrospective effect from July 14, 2009.
Now, the tribunals can hold trials of any organisations -- political or social -- alongside individuals for committing crimes against humanity during Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971 and punish them accordingly.
The bill, which was placed in parliament on Wednesday, did not have the proposal to empower the tribunals to try and punish organisations.
But in the face of mass outrage after the Quader Mollah verdict and the demand for banning Jamaat-e-Islami, considered by many as an anti-liberation force, the government decided to introduce this provision and brought the amendment during passage of the bill.
People burst into protest on February 5 when a verdict delivered by a war crimes tribunal sentenced Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah to life in prison. The protesters, who had been demonstrating in Shahbagh since then, feel Mollah was handed down a lenient sentence and that he should be awarded the death penalty.
They demanded a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami and student organisation Islami Chhatra Shibir and their trial for crimes against humanity.
Jamaat-e-Islami yesterday rejected the amendment and said the government's move would “lead the country into a civil war”, reports our staff correspondent.
Jamaat acting secretary general Rafiqul Islam Khan last night in a statement said the government had made the decision to wipe out Islamic idealism in the country. He said such move would put the country into a dreadful anarchic situation.
Ruling Awami League-alliance MPs, however, welcomed passage of the bill thumping their desks in parliament yesterday.
The main opposition BNP's deputies, who have been boycotting the parliament since March last year, took a different stance yesterday.
Even though they are boycotting the House, the opposition MPs usually take part in the process of passage of bills by submitting notices proposing the bills be sent to select committee for further scrutiny and publicise the bills seeking people's opinion.
Yesterday, the opposition deputies, including two Jamaat deputies, refrained from submitting any such notices on the amendment bill.
During the passage of the bill, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed referring to a constitutional provision said the trial of organisations in connection with war crimes would not face questions due to constitutional protection.
The 15th amendment to the constitution made in 2011 brought significant changes to article 47 (3) of the constitution so the legality of making any law and holding trials of any individual, group of individuals or organisation cannot be challenged in any court.
In defence of the provision for trying organisations, the law minister said after the World War-II, the Nazi Party had to stand in the dock for war crimes and members of the party had to face trial in Nuremberg, Germany.
He thanked Workers Party chief Rashed Khan Menon for coming up with the proposal to empower the tribunals to hold trials of organisations involved in war crimes.
During his proposal, Menon said Jamaat-e-Islami had actively opposed the country's Liberation War by forming Razakar, Al-Badr, Al-Shams forces in line with their political decision.
“Now they are carrying out violent activities to foil the trial of war criminals,” he said.
Referring to the observation of a tribunal that convicted fugitive Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar, Menon said the tribunal had already found Jamaat responsible for committing war crimes in 1971.
Apart from Jamaat-e-Islami, some other parties also opposed the Liberation War. Maj Saddik Salik, who was the public relations officer of the eastern command of the Pakistan army in 1971, in his book titled “Witness to Surrender” said the only people who came forward to form the army of Razakars were the rightists like Khwaza Khairuddin of Council Muslim League, Fazlul Quader Chowdhury of Convention Muslim League, Khan Sobur A Khan of Muslim League Qayyum, Prof Ghulam Azam of Jamaat-e-Islami, and Maulvi Farid Ahmed of Nizam-i-Islam Party.
After the changes, the government or informants or complainants will have the right to file appeal against any verdict of war crimes tribunals. The convicts already enjoy the right to file an appeal against any conviction.
Using the right, the government almost certainly would file an appeal with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court against the verdict of the International Crimes Tribunal-2 that sentenced Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah to life in prison.
After the latest changes, the prosecution and the defence would have to file the appeal within 30 days from the date of verdict delivery by the tribunal and the apex court would have to dispose of the appeal within 60 days of its filing.
Earlier, the provisions of the law did not allow the government, the complainant, to appeal against inadequate sentencing by war crimes tribunals. It allowed an appeal only in the case of an acquittal.
Upon conviction of an accused, the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act empowers the tribunals to award death or such other punishment proportionate to the gravity of the crimes as the tribunals deem just and proper.
The act, however, does not have any provision on punishment of any organisation. Yesterday's amendment also did not propose any such provision.
When his attention was drawn to it, eminent jurist Shahdeen Malik said it is a problem to make an organisation subject to criminal law as it is not possible to sentence an organisation to death or have it imprisoned.
In the latest changes, he said, the provision for punishment of organisation should have been specified. The punishment could be imposing a ban on an organisation or imposing financial penalty or confiscation of its properties, he said.