The first war crimes tribunal on Sunday warned former Jamaat-e-Islami chief Ghulam Azam’s defence that it would stop defence witness examination if they remained absent further.
The three-judge International Crimes Tribunal-1, set up to deal with crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971, had adjourned the Azam case until 2pm granting a defence plea.
The Jamaat guru was indicted on May 13 for five war crimes charges including complicity, incitement and conspiracy.
The court had then directed the defence counsel to have his defence witness and the counsel ready. Mizanur Rahman, the only defence lawyer present at the court, pleaded for an adjournment in the morning since neither the senior counsels nor his witness could come to the court.
Tribunal Chairman Justice Mohammad Nizamul Huq told the counsel that the opposition enforced blockade would continue until 2pm. “Have them present here at that time then.”
The tribunal also told the counsel that Manjur Ahmed Ansari, another senior counsel, who sometimes assists regular defence counsel, might come instead of Mizanul Islam.
The tribunal deferred the case to 2pm but convened the proceedings at 2:30pm when the defence side of the court room still remained empty with another counsel joining Mizanur Rahman.
Rahman stood up to plead for adjournment a second time citing the inability of his witness to come to the court while he said Ansari was still in Chittagong while it was not quite possible for Mizanul Islam to come.
Zead-Al-Malum, the conducting prosecutor, stood up to say that there was no reason for the witness or the defence counsels not to come. “But I suppose everyone knows why the defence counsels are absent during an opposition-called hartal.”
“But this is not a general strike,” reminded Justice Huq. The opposition parties, led by the BNP, had called a blockade of the streets on Sunday. Jamaat-e-Islami remains one of the key allies of the main opposition.
Most of the ongoing war crimes charges are against the top Jamaat leadership who remain behind bars. Almost all of the defence counsels are also members of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The prosecutor said, “But since the witness is absent without any apparent reason, it should be presumed that he is not interested to give testimony in this case.”
The prosecutor prayed that testimony of the first defence witness of Ghulam Azam’s case be stopped.
The first defence witness for Ghulam Azam, who was in the middle of submitting defence documents as exhibits, happens to be a son of the accused.
Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, a former Brigadier of the Bangladesh Army who was summarily sacked after a 30-year career in the infantry, is still in the process of exhibiting documents.
The tribunal then passed an order noting the context of the situation and the submissions of the lawyers.
Justice Huq, giving the order on behalf of the tribunal, noted that this case — meaning the one of Ghulam Azam — had much public importance.
“We are of the view that the defence witness and the lawyers ought to have been here, but we don’t find them here.”
The order said that the defence should be given a chance to present its witnesses. As such, the court ordered the defence counsels to remain present at the tribunal regularly and present their witnesses one after another.
The case was thus adjourned until the next day and the judge added one more sentence of caution, saying that if the defence failed to produce defence witnesses further then their witness testimony will stand stopped.
Jamaat Guru in ICT-1
On Dec 12, 2011, the prosecution brought a 52-point charter of charges against Azam and appealed for his arrest. Later, following the tribunal order, charges were re-arranged and presented to the tribunal on Jan 5.
He was produced before the tribunal on Jan 11 and sent to jail the same day. Since that evening, the 89-year old former Carmichael College professor has been kept at the prison cell of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for better treatment considering his delicate health.
Ghulam Azam’s indictment hearing began on Feb 15 and the court charged him on May 13.
A former chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, arguably the largest Islamist organisation in the subcontinent, Azam is allegedly among the key people who pioneered anti-liberation efforts in 1971 colluding with the Pakistani military junta of that time.
He is widely perceived to have been among core group of right-wing supporters of the Pakistani Army, who came out strongly in support of a united Pakistan.
Ghulam Azam, then chief of Jamaat, was instrumental in setting up the infamous Peace Committee at the national level. The Razakars, an auxiliary force set up mainly to actively thwart the liberation forces, are said to have been mobilised through the Peace Committees across Bangladesh.
Among the most notorious vigilante militia are the Al Badr, whose membership is said to have been mainly dominated by the Jamaat’s student wing called the Islami Chhatra Sangha at that time.
The Al Badr is alleged to have spearheaded execution of the intellectual elites of Bangladesh just days before the victory on Dec 16, 1971.
Azam also spoke in favour of Pakistan to the Middle Eastern countries during the war, according to the prosecution.
He stayed in London for seven years after 1971 and returned to Bangladesh in 1978 during BNP founder Ziaur Rahman’s rule. Having led Jamaat for long, Azam retired from active politics in 1999.
His party remains a key ally of the main opposition BNP. Two Jamaat leaders, also behind bars for war crimes charges, have even served as ministers during the BNP’s last tenure in government between 2001 and 2006, when Azam’s party was part of the ruling coalition.