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Monday 24 November  
Legal heart of Dhaka
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Dhaka, Bangladesh
Dhaka, Bangladesh

Bangladesh tribunal: is name-calling contempt of court?

Published on : 29 April 2011 - 11:39am | By Richard Walker (Photo: AFP)

Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been widely criticized for not meeting international legal standards. It has now opened itself up to accusations of bullying the media.

By Richard Walker

The ICT finally got underway last year, nearly 40 years after Bangladesh’s bloody cessation from Pakistan in which up to a million people were killed. The Tribunal is supposed to bring to justice the Bangladeshis responsible for the violence meted out to anyone supporting the independence movement. But the list of criticisms against the court is growing steadily.

Over the past 12 months the ICT has been criticized for failing to meet international legal standards. Suspects have been held for long periods without charge, and questions have been raised about the system of interrogation. International legal expert and barrister Stephen Kay says, “they’ve imported international crimes into the Bangladesh national legal system and at the same time anyone charged, suspected, questioned or detained has had their rights exported out. And you can’t challenge that. So they’ve created a very strange court that reduces the rights of the people involved with it.”

There have also been accusations that the current cases are politically motivated and that political scores are being settled in the courtroom.

Hold your tongue

But the court has now wandered into new legitimacy problems. 

A journalist based in Dhaka described the Tribunal in print last week as having ‘no backbone’ and of being a ‘rubber-stamp’. He was promptly summonsed to appear before the court where Judge AKM Zahir Ahmed said, “The tribunal has been termed as a rubberstamp and other defamatory words were also used, which is tantamount to contempt of court. If you go on writing this kind of report you will have to face contempt charges in future.”

What is “contempt of court”?

The freedom of expression lobby group “Article 19” describes contempt of court as being when “there is interference with or disruption of criminal or civil court proceedings. Examples include yelling in the court room, publishing matters which may prejudice the right to a fair trial, or criticisms of courts or judges which may undermine public confidence in the judicial system (“scandalizing the court”).

Notably though, the eminent British judge Lord Diplock has made the point that “It is justice itself that is flouted by contempt of court, not the individual court or judge who is attempting to administer it.”

Empty threats?

Determining whether the threat made against the journalist in Dhaka last week was serious or not will likely be a process accelerated by the increase in foreign media and international interest in the ICT. Will ICT judges threaten critical foreign journalists?  It seems the tension between the court’s judges and its critics is set inevitably to increase.

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From the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda, Cambodia and Lebanon, Radio Netherlands Worldwide reports on international justice. We offer background news and reporting on war crimes, human rights abuses and genocide.