(New York) – The death sentence against Muhammed Kamaruzzman, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party convicted of war crimes during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, should immediately be stayed. Kamaruzzman should be granted a right to appeal against the death sentence.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned at news that the government has ordered the authorities at Dhaka Central jail to make preparations for the execution of Kamaruzzamn. Kamaruzzaman was transferred to Dhaka Central Jail following the appeals verdict, a signal that his execution is imminent. Kamaruzzaman and his counsel have yet to receive the full text of the final verdict, which is necessary for him to be able to lodge a petition for review of the decision within thirty days, a standard procedure in all death penalty cases. Government officials have indicated that the execution is possible before the full verdict is issued which goes against standard policy in death penalty cases.

“Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an irreversible, degrading, and cruel punishment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is particularly problematic when proceedings do not meet fair trial standards and where the right to appeal against a death sentence by an independent court is not allowed.”

A presidential pardon, technically possible, is highly unlikely in these politically charged cases.

Kamaruzzaman was originally arrested in July 2010 on the orders of the International Crimes Court (ICT), a specially constituted court set up to prosecute war crimes committed during the 1971 war. Kamaruzzaman was given no reason for his arrest, leading to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to classify his arrest as arbitrary and a violation of international law. Following a trial replete with procedural defects, Kamaruzzaman was sentenced to death in May 2013 after the ICT found him guilty of participation in and planning of the unlawful killings of civilians in the village of Sohagpur in collaboration with the Pakistani army. On November 3, the Supreme Court on appeal upheld the trial court’s conviction and sentence. Kamaruzzaman’s death sentence was the third in a war crimes case in less than a week.

Human Rights Watch noted that trials before the ICT, including that of Kamaruzzaman, have been replete with fair trial concerns. In Kamaruzzaman’s case, defense evidence, including witnesses and documents, were arbitrarily limited. Inconsistent prior and subsequent statements of critical witnesses were rejected by the court, denying the defense a chance to challenge the credibility of prosecution witnesses. An application by the defence to recuse two judges for prior bias was summarily rejected. 

This follows a disturbing precedent from other cases. In December 2013, Abdul Qader Mollah was hanged following hastily enacted retrospective legislation which is prohibited by international law. Another accused, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, was convicted in spite of credible allegations of the abduction by state forces of a key defence witness with the ICT refusing to order an independent investigation into the charge. Many of the trials have been marred by the evidence of intercepted communications between the prosecution and the judges which reveal prohibited contact. The ICT’s response on several occasions to those who raise objections about the trials has been to file contempt charges against them in an apparent attempt to silence criticism rather than answer substantively or indeed, to rectify any errors. Human Rights Watch, the journalist David Bergman, and members of The Economist have all been tried for contempt for publishing articles critical of the trials.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has said that “in cases of trials leading to the imposition of the death penalty, scrupulous respect of the guarantees of fair trial is particularly important” and that any death penalty imposed after an unfair trial would be a violation of the right to a fair trial.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its long-standing call on the government of Bangladesh to restore fundamental rights protection to the war crimes accused. Article 47A (1) of the constitution specifically strips war crimes accused of their right to certain fundamental rights, including the right to an expeditious trial by an independent and impartial court or tribunal, and the right to move the courts to enforce their fundamental rights. This pernicious amendment to the constitution allows the ICT overly broad discretion to deny these accused the rights and procedures accorded to other criminal accused.

“Human Rights Watch has long supported justice and accountability for the horrific crimes that occurred in 1971, but we have also stated repeatedly that these trials must meet international fair trial standards in order to properly deliver on those promises for the victims,” Adams said. “Delivering justice requires adhering to the highest standards, particularly when a life is at stake. The death penalty is irreversible and cruel, and Bangladesh needs to get rid of it once and for all.”