New York, Feb 15 (IANS) Retroactive legislation that violates fair trial standards undermines the legitimacy of the work of Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), Human Rights Watch has said.
The amendments were offered to enable an appeals court to overturn a life sentence imposed on Abdul Qader Mollah and impose the death penalty.
Amid controversy over the conviction and sentencing of people accused of crimes during the 1971 independence war with Pakistan, Human Rights Watch also called on security forces to restrict their use of force and firearms only to situations in which it was absolutely necessary.
"Justice for victims of war crimes and other serious abuses during the 1971 war of liberation is essential," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"But a government supposedly guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to overrule court decisions when it doesn't like them.
"The Bangladesh government should pause, take a deep breath, and repeal the proposed amendments, which make a mockery of the trial process."
The ICT was established to hold accountable those responsible for grave violations of international law during Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971.
Most of the accused in the war crimes cases are long-standing senior leaders of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islaami party which opposed Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan.
On Jan 21, the ICT handed down its first judgment, against Abu Kalam Azad. He was tried in absentia, found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to hang.
In the second verdict, announced Feb 5, the ICT convicted Mollah, a leading member of Jamaat, on five out of six counts, including of murder and rape as crimes against humanity and war crimes, and sentenced him to life in prison. He was acquitted on one count of murder.
Government officials, members of the ruling Awami League party and segments of the public reacted with outrage that Mollah was not sentenced to death.
Large crowds assembled in the Shahbag area of Dhaka demanding the death penalty.
The government responded by proposing amendments to the ICT law, allowing the prosecution to appeal the sentence, and decreasing the time for an appeal to be completed.
On Feb 14, the draft amendment was offered in parliament and is expected to be approved Feb 17.
Until this verdict, the prosecution was only allowed to appeal if the accused was acquitted, and 90 days were allowed for appeals.
The amendments violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a state party.
Protesters have called for Jamaat and its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, to be banned.
They also want further amendments of ICT law to prohibit presidential pardons for those convicted by the ICT, and to permit closure of Jamaat-related businesses and media outlets.
Reliable sources have told Human Rights Watch that some defence witnesses have decided not to appear in court, fearing reprisals.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that judges may be afraid to give any sentence other than the death penalty in other cases.