Bangladesh’s cabinet approved on Monday changes to war crime laws to ensure opposition leaders on trial for alleged atrocities during the nation’s 1971 independence war can be swiftly executed if convicted.
The move came amid huge demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in Dhaka for the past seven days calling for quick executions of the 10 alleged war criminals currently being tried on such charges as genocide and rape.
Two others have already been convicted.
The demonstrations began after the war crimes tribunal last week handed a life sentence to a leader of the largest Islamic party — a term critics condemned as too lenient.
The demonstrators include students, bloggers, academics and journalists.
Cabinet secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said the cabinet, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, approved the changes, allowing the state and victims to contest the life term for Abdul Quader Molla of the Jamaat-e-Islami party.
The cabinet also set a 60-day limit for the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division to dispose of appeals, Bhuiyan said, meaning someone getting a maximum death sentence can be hanged this year.
“Previously there were no rules on disposing of an appeal at the Appellate Division,” he told reporters.
Bangladesh’s legal system is notoriously slow with the judiciary overwhelmed by millions of cases — meaning some take years to be heard.
“Now, a new rule has been added under which an appeal (against a war crime verdict) must be disposed of within 45 days. If not possible… the Appellate division will get another 15 days. The total is 60 days,” Bhuiyan said.
The parliament “will pass the law within a few days”, he said.
The war court, called the International Crimes Tribunal despite having no international oversight, last month sentenced a fugitive Islamic TV preacher to death for murder during the 1971 war.
Last Tuesday, Molla, Jamaat’s fourth-highest ranked leader, who was accused of mass murder, became the first opposition leader to be sentenced.
Eight other Jamaat officials, including its head and deputy head and two senior officials of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are also being tried by the tribunal. Most of the cases are at an advanced stage.
Both Jamaat and BNP have labelled the cases “show trials” aimed at barring the leaders from upcoming polls. International rights groups have questioned the proceedings.
The life term for the Jamaat-e-Islami party leader triggered nationwide protests with Jamaat rejecting the verdict and its supporters clashing with police, resulting in at least four deaths.
The government says the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the nine-month war in which it says three million people were killed, many by pro-Pakistani militia whose members allegedly included Jamaat officials.
Mujibur Rahman, the father of the current prime minister, had planned to put alleged war criminals on trial before his assassination in a coup in 1975 — which Hasina says was masterminded by war criminals.