Journalists and imperfect justice in Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s Supreme Court has hardened the sentence against Abdul Quader Molla, a top Islamist of a key opposition party, from a life term to death for his role in mass killings committed during the country’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. But what caught my eye in particular was that Molla was also convicted on a separate charge of murdering a prominent journalist, Khandoker Abu Taleb, on March 29, 1971.

Taleb served as secretary-general of the East Pakistan Journalists’ Union when Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan. While the murder occurred well before CPJ began keeping records in 1992, it is worth noting how justice is sometimes delivered in Bangladesh’s imperfect criminal justice system and what this means for journalists who cover the developments.

In February, Molla was sentenced to life imprisonment by the country’s controversial International Crimes Tribunal. “He killed my father and he got away. I am not happy,” Taleb’s son, Khandoker Abul Ahsa, told the press following the tribunal’s decision. The sentence sparked large-scale demonstrations by many secularists and supporters of the ruling party, who saw the sentence as too lenient, as well as violent protests by Islamists, who have dismissed the tribunal as a device to target political opponents.

And amid the frenzy, journalists were often caught in the violence. As you may recall, Ekushey Television reporter Nadia Sharmeen was chased and beaten during protests that ensued in April. Journalist couple Nayeemul Islam Khan, editor of the Bengali-language national daily Amader Orthoneeti, and Nasima Khan Monti, associate editor of a Bengali news portal and newsroom editor of ATN News, had homemade explosives hurled at them as they were returning home from a wedding in March.

In a separate case this past July, the tribunal sentenced to death another top Islamist for his role during the war in targeting minority Hindus and intellectuals, like veteran journalist Serajuddin Hossain, who had published critical articles against the Pakistani government and its supporters.

In the days following Molla’s initial sentencing by the tribunal, the government quickly rushed amendments through Parliament allowing prosecutors to appeal the sentence and decreased the time for an appeal to be completed. The country’s Supreme Court retroactively applied these amendments to convert Molla’s life imprisonment sentence to death by hanging.”This is the first time in South Asian judicial history that a trial court sentence has been enhanced by a Supreme Court,” defense lawyer and opposition party official Khandakar Mahbubuddin Ahmed told Al-Jazeera. However, the prosecutors maintained that they kept within legal standards. International human rights groups have criticized the fresh sentencing as a violation of fair trial standards.

While accountability in the murder of a journalist is essential, so must the system by which justice is delivered be accountable. And while a journalist’s family has finally won justice more than 40 years on, that justice has been blemished by poor standards of due process. As a result, this week the streets of Dhaka have once again become scenes of fresh violence. And I worry that it is journalists who will once again become the targets.