It is now over a month since the Baroness Warsi, the UK’s Senior Foreign Office Minister,released a statement via the FCO’s website to coincide with World Day Against Death Penalty. Her statement reiterated the UK Government’s stance on Capital Punishment. ‘The UK Government’, she said, ‘remains committed to working towards the worldwide abolition of the death penalty’. Her colleagues at the FCO echoed these statements on social media and elsewhere.
There was nothing extraordinary about her words. After all, the FCOs own ‘Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015’, published two years ago, clearly states the Government’s approach. This includes high level lobbying, political dialogues and funding of human rights and democracy programmes.
Negotiating the tightrope of global diplomacy is an unenviable task. However, I have been left puzzled by the inaction of the British government over a recent spate of judgments in Bangladesh. First, there was the mass sentencing of 152 border guards to death over a 2009 mutiny, a process that was slammed by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, amongst others. When – and ‘if’ seems unlikely – these executions are carried out, Bangladesh will be catapulted to third in the league table of death penalty countries, behind Iran and China.
This month British national Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin was sentenced to death in his absence, at the Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). He was accused, like the dozen men before him, of war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 Independence War.
Mr Mueen-Uddin’s case is highly troubling. Neither he nor his defence team was ever contacted by the Bangladeshi authorities. He was presented with no evidence. He still does not know the exact charges, relying solely on second hand media reports from Dhaka. Clearly, this case was nothing short of farcical.
Mr Mueen-Uddin can take some small comfort from knowing the British government does not extradite to a country that enacts the death penalty. Any cynical attempt to alter the sentence to ensure extradition will not wash with a British Court. And this is before this wholly compromised trial process is even taken into consideration.
The Foreign Office does not comment on extradition requests. But in their aforementioned strategy paper, they clearly state the use of ‘all appropriate influence to prevent the execution of any British national.’ Those lobbying for his extradition, either in the UK or abroad, should not waste their time.
For legal observers, there is further cause for concern. Abdul Quader Mollah, one of two defendants who faced life imprisonment, had his sentence changed retroactively to death. Simply put, legislation was passed to give him the death sentence that was never available at any stage during his trial.
As outlined in my letter to Foreign Secretary William Hague, co-signed by eight members of the House of Lords and some of the UK’s leading war crimes QCs, this series of executions have a far more insidious underbelly. All defendants originate from the political opposition parties. With elections in Bangladesh around the corner, it is now evident this Tribunal is an attempt to paralyse the opposition ranks.
In young and developing democracies the imprisonment of dissenting voices is commonplace, but not unsurprising. Yet it is the incendiary act of executing high-level opposition leaders before an election which risks plunging Bangladesh into turmoil.
Criticism of legal processes aside, it is this challenge to the very fundamentals of a modern democracy that must concern all of us. In a country where the UK has such strong ties – economically and historically – it is surely now time for our government to push for change. The internationalisation of these trials, and a moratorium on all death penalty sentences, may provide the solution.
The consequences of inaction will be dire. Nationwide strikes and unrest on the streets of Bangladesh will continue. At the time of writing, opposition Jamaat-e-Islami activists torched vehicles in reaction to the alleged abduction and murder of a local leader. They claimed the victim was last seen being picked up by local plain-clothes police officers. Their anger follows the de-registration of their party from the upcoming elections – a foolhardy move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that will only galvanise opposition ranks. Her refusal to allow a credible cross-party caretaker government to oversee the polls carries the dangerous sign of a leader clinging to power at any cost.
It is up to anti-death penalty advocates like the British government to now make their voices heard. The ICT’s first round of executions may start in less than a month. If they are not halted, Bangladesh may enter a dark chapter in its history. For those who follow Bangladesh’s recent troubles, such deep political division and retributive violence will come as no surprise. As the French writer Guy de Maupassant observed: “Since governments take the right of death over their people, it is not astonishing if the people should sometimes take the right of death over governments.”