Almost eight years have passed since the murder of Bangladeshi journalist Gautam Das, but the slow wheels of justice have finally rotated. Late last month, a court sentenced nine individuals to life in prison in connection with the scribe’s murder. Many local journalists have hailed the verdict as a landmark, the first time a Bangladeshi court has successfully prosecuted a murder of a journalist.
Eight of the nine convicted on June 27 are junior politicians belonging to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, including the son of a former parliamentarian, according to news reports.
“This marks the first time in Bangladesh’s 42-year history that the police thoroughly investigated the murder of a journalist, arrested the perpetrators, and that a court delivered a favorable verdict,” said Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, a prominent journalist and former head of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists.
Shortly before his murder in November 2005, Das published a series of reports for the Dhaka-based daily Samakal, detailing corruption by BNP officials, according to news reports. His body was found strangled in his bureau in the town of Faridpur, 40 miles outside the capital. The following day, Das’ colleague filed a complaint with local police, accusing 10 individuals in connection with the murder, many of whom were members of the then-ruling BNP, according to reports.
But the long road to justice was pitted with potholes. One of the accused died during the course of the trial. Others were released on bail. Witnesses scared of testifying backed out, according to Saleem Samad, a local journalist who knew Das. And in 2006, the case was transferred from the local district court to the Dhaka Speedy Tribunal Court 1 for an expedited judgment after pressure from local journalists. One defendant challenged the legality of this transfer, resulting in further delays.
Seven years later, this “speedy” court delivered its decision. While many journalists and press freedom advocates have welcomed the verdict, Das’ widow, Dipali Das, expressed her disappointment and concerns to local media that the convicts would try to use their finances to get out of jail. Her concerns are legitimate; Bangladesh is consistently rated one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Dipali Das said the killers deserved the death penalty.
It is widely accepted by those who knew Das that those sentenced are the individuals behind the murder. It remains unclear if these men are the masterminds based on the police investigation, eyewitness accounts and confessions of the convicts, according to local journalists. Bulbul warned that the judgment will likely be appealed, and in a politicized place like Bangladesh, there is always the possibility that the defendants walk free.
Impunity for journalists’ murders runs deep in Bangladesh. At least 14 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work since CPJ began keeping records in 1992. Six others have been killed for reasons that remain unclear. Bangladesh ranks as the world’s 19th deadliest country for the press, according to CPJ data. “For last 40 years hardly any journalists silenced for their profession had received justice, despite media pressure. In some incidents the family members have rejected the court verdict, some have even withdrawn their case out of frustration,” said Samad.
Bulbul is hopeful this may change. “This is the beginning of the end of the culture of impunity that exists for journalist murders in Bangladesh,” he said.