(New York) - Bangladesh should make significant improvements to its 1973 law on war crimes so that its planned trials for atrocities and crimes committed in the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan will bring meaningful justice to victims, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said on July 6, 2009, that the government would send parliament proposed amendments approved by the cabinet to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973. In his announcement, the law minister presented changes that he said would make the law "fair and neutral." However, these proposals would still neither bring Bangladeshi law into line with international fair-trial standards nor ensure due process, Human Rights Watch said.

"The government shouldn't cut corners on these long-overdue trials for horrific crimes," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The law needs to be air-tight so that perpetrators won't be able to challenge the entire process and successfully appeal convictions."

In its letter to Sheikh Hasina, Human Rights Watch welcomed the government's commitment to bring to justice those responsible for atrocities in 1971, but stressed that the 1973 law should be amended to:

  • Ensure that the trials are conducted only by qualified civilian judges, not military judges;
  • Ensure the rights of the accused are fully respected, in particular the rights to a fair trial and protection from torture and other ill-treatment;
  • Provide for protection of witnesses and victims testifying before the tribunal;
  • Ensure that the law is consistent with internationally recognized definitions of crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity; and
  • Exclude provisions allowing for the death penalty.

"This is a highly politically charged subject in Bangladesh, which makes it even more important to have a judicial process that can withstand all challenges," said Adams. "Otherwise some may argue the trials are political and that the aim is revenge rather than justice."