Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Call to disclose military court records

Relatives of death convicts and human-rights activists have demanded that confidential records of all military trials be flung out in the open for public view to dispel misgivings.

Former ambassadors, civil servants and a retired Supreme Court judge have rallied behind the call.

In the context of the recent developments in the army and its rare admission of a coup plot, they suggest that declassification of the old secret documents could do away with the general confusion among the citizens.

President of the Dhaka University Teachers' Association, Dr Anwar Hossain, told, "All proceedings of controversial courts martial to have taken place in Bangladesh should be declassified."

A younger brother of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal leader Col Mohammed Abu Taher who was summarily executed in a secret trial by a special military tribunal during the 1976 army regime, Hossain said, "The records and papers of that farcical trial have not yet been given to the court even though a [High Court] order is there."

Col Taher hanged on July 21 that year, a few years after he retired from active military service. Commander of the Sector 11 during the nation's war of independence from Pakistan, he and 32 others were charged with mutiny and treason. Anwar Hossain was one of those accused.

When it was pointed to him that the law in question had safeguards against making public such documents that could compromise national security, Hossain said, "At least the next of kin of those who were sentenced in court martial should be allowed to know what their offences were."

The execution of Col Taher in 1976 under the then chief martial law administrator, Gen Ziaur Rahman, was described by the High Court in a verdict on March 23 last year as "a cold-blooded murder".

Sultana Kamal, head of the Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International's Bangladesh chapter, said, "The records [of courts martial] can be made public through the Right to Information Act."

"People will never get to know the truth unless these documents are made public," said the executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra, an NGO that provides legal aid and advocates human rights.

"Once declassified, the people would know the trend of our history, how democracy was choked in the past," remarked the long-time human rights activist.

Justice Golam Rabbani was on the same wavelength, saying that the right to information act was sufficient enough for disclosure of a preposterous trial like that of Col Taher.

"In my opinion, MPs can bring a bill to this effect in parliament," said the former judge regarding systematic declassification of secret documents.

"No matter during which regime or tenure but trial proceedings of courts martial like that of Col Taher should be disclosed."

Rabbani said the truth must be made public and the public has all the right to know the facts. "The refusal to declassify such secret documents citing national security was merely a hoax. These excuses are nothing but cheating with the people."

A former adviser to the caretaker government, Akbar Ali Khan said "sooner or later" these records would certainly have to be made public.

"But some countries take longer to do that (make them public), while some others take less," added the retired career civil servant who was a Cabinet Division secretary.

"If needed the state could take such a decision."

Records of some of the trial proceedings should be declassified, said former ambassador Syed Waliur Rahman. He drew the example of the 'farcical' trial of Colonel Taher.

Rahman said that the United States declassifies its secret documents after a lapse of 30 years and they are then kept in the Library of Congress for the public to see. Britain declassifies its documents after 28 years.

It has been 30 years since some courts martial were conducted during the regime of military strongman General Ziaur Rahman.

Waliur Rahman said numerous officers had been executed through military trials during Gen Zia's tenure. "Can't we get those records? Can't we discuss those deaths?"

British journalist Anthony Mascarenhas wrote in his authoritative book, 'Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood', that Ziaur Rahman's five-and-a-half-year tenure saw over 20 revolt, coup attempts which triggered a number of courts martial.

After Zia's assassination in a successful military coup, 13 officers were hanged but their records of their trials are yet to be disclosed to the public.