(New York, January 17, 2013) – The Bangladeshi authorities should immediately explain what actions they have taken to locate Shukho Ranjan Bali, a witness who defense lawyers and witnesses say was abducted from the gates of the war crimes courthouse in Dhaka on November 5, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. More than two months after his disappearance, there is no news about Bali’s whereabouts or condition. The witnesses say he was last seen in police custody.
Bali, originally a prosecution witness, had agreed to testify for the defense, the defense had said, in the case of Delwar Hossain Sayedee at the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). The ICT is a domestic tribunal set up to try violations of the laws of war and other crimes during the country’s independence war in 1971.
“An allegation of an abduction is of the utmost seriousness since the person abducted is at great risk of being killed,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should have immediately mobilized all available resources to find Bali, but has done nothing, making it appear at best indifferent to the welfare of one of its citizens.”
Immediately after the alleged abduction, defense lawyers told the trial chamber in the Sayedee case what had happened. The court ordered the prosecution, but not the police, to investigate the claim and accepted the prosecution’s response a few hours later that the entire episode had been fabricated by the defense.
On November 11 the attorney general testified before the High Court on a writ of habeas corpus that the abduction claim had been fabricated by the defense to bring the tribunal into disrepute, but offered no evidence of a serious police investigation or other grounds for this conclusion. A defense application for review is still pending before the appellate court. It remains unclear whether any action has been taken to investigate what happened to Bali.
Human Rights Watch has long supported the Bangladesh government’s efforts to provide justice for victims of the 1971 war, but has repeatedly warned that such efforts should conform to international fair trial standards.
The defense team said that Bali met them at their offices on the morning of November 5. They then drove together to the court. At the gate, Bali and the lawyers were ordered out of the car and told to identify themselves. When Bali was identified by name by a senior defense counsel, the police detectives who were on the gate insisted that Bali come with them. Bali and the defense counsel both argued that Bali was a witness due to appear before the court later that day. A white van marked “Police” then allegedly drove up from inside the tribunal premises. Several defense lawyers present said that 10 to 12 uniformed regular police were at the gates of the tribunal at the time. The defense team alleges that officers slapped Bali several times around the face and head, and forced him into the van. The van then drove off. Bali has not been seen or heard from since.
A relative of Bali’s has said that he last heard from Bali on the date of the alleged abduction. The relative reported that Bali said he was in Dhaka and was going to testify in court. An independent journalist’s inquiry has confirmed that phone records indicate that there was a phone call from Bali to this relative. Family members have not heard from him since and have expressed their concern.
“Disappearances are an awful human rights violation because family members don’t know whether their loved one is dead or alive,” Adams said. “Every day they wait for an answer is another day of pain and suffering.”
Justice Nizamul Huq, then the chairman of the trial chamber sitting on the case, told Human Rights Watch that he had asked the prosecution at the ICT to verify all allegations of irregularities, including the disappearance, even though the prosecution is an interested party in the trials. He acknowledged that this was not the normal practice in Bangladesh and provided no legal or practical reason for this decision.
Although he vociferously denied any bias against the defense, Justice Huq had a member of the prosecution team and the deputy registrar in his chambers during the entire interview with Human Rights Watch, as he had in previous meetings. Justice Huq has since resigned as chairman of the ICT following publication by The Economist of intercepted email and phone conversations showing that there was prohibited contact between Huq, the prosecution, government officials, and an external adviser.
Human Rights Watch noted that Bali’s disappearance followed prosecution claims that they were unable to produce certain prosecution witnesses, including Bali. As a result, the prosecution applied for and was granted a motion allowing them to put into evidence written testimony without either direct or cross-examination. A defense challenge to this motion, which included evidence from government safe-house logbooks showing that witnesses were available to testify, was rejected by the court without a serious investigation.
“Asking an interested party in a case, namely the prosecution, to inquire into the abduction of a hostile witness and then simply accepting its answer, is not a serious response,” Adams said. “We expect the government and its law enforcement agencies to mount an urgent, serious, and politically independent investigation to find Bali.”