Space For Rent

Space For Rent
Thursday, July 2, 2015, Ashar 18, 1422 BS, Ramadan 14, 1436 Hijr

Law against denial of genocide
Mozammel H Khan
Published : Thursday, 2 July, 2015,  Time : 12:00 AM,  View Count : 101
The right to free speech is one of the most important democratic freedoms. It encourages diversity of opinion in the public sphere to serve public interest. But like most freedoms, it is not absolute, nor should it be. Freedom of speech must be balanced with freedom from the destabilising effects of public hatred in the one hand and emotion on the other. In addition, in the words of a Canadian Justice M A Binder Freedom of expression 'will yield to safeguard the integrity of the court of justice'.
Last year, the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of Bangladesh found a British-born journalist David Bergman guilty of contempt for challenging the official death toll from the 1971 War of Liberation. The honourable Judges observed that a 2011 blog post by Bergman deliberately distorted history. In a November 2011 post, he questioned whether there was evidence to support the official death toll and referred to other studies suggesting the real figure may be much lower. Delivering the verdict, presiding Judge Obaidul Hassan told the courtroom that, "freedom of expression can be exercised in good faith and public interest". "David Bergman neither had good faith nor had he done it to serve public interest", the judge added. The tribunal reiterated the fact that three million people were killed in the Liberation War was historically established and the people of Bangladesh were emotionally attached to it. The tribunal also referred to its previous judgements where it mentioned the number (three million). "Anyone can do research on this but they have to be aware about not making any comment that may hurt the tribunal's dignity", added the honourable judge.
In his reaction, Bergman said he was 'shocked', terming the ICT order a matter of 'great concern to those interested in freedom of speech and the proper scrutiny of state institutions'. On December 20 last year, a popular national daily ran a report titled, "50 people express concern over Bergman's punishment", which stated that the order would restrict freedom of expression. The ICT-2 on January 14 this year asked the signatories to explain the statement they issued expressing concern over the punishment of David Bergman for contempt of court. The statement 'prima facie' appears to intend to 'belittle the authority and institutional dignity of the tribunal in the mind of public', the court said in an order. The order further said it appeared that the statement 'questions transparency and openness of the tribunal and also justification of the order' sentencing Bergman.
The tribunal later cleared 26 citizens of the charge as they apologised unconditionally and 22 others, who were facing the same charge, were exonerated since, in the opinion of the court, they had committed the contempt for the first time. However, the ICT found Zafrullah Chowdhury, incidentally a man who was on the right side of history in 1971, guilty of contempt and imprisoned him at court for an hour for criticising punishment of David Bergman. ICT-2 also fined him Tk 5,000, in default of which he will have to serve a month in prison.
Following the conviction, the impertinence he exhibited in the courtroom and paradoxically, the apparent ignorance of most, if not all, of the signatories about the contents of Bergman's blog vis-?-vis the number of martyrs and his lecturing of ICTs on their dos and don'ts, and the Bergman guilty verdict, there have been uproar in the social media demanding enactment of law in line with the 'laws against Holocaust denial' as enacted in 14 European countries. According to the laws the denial of the systematic genocidal killing of millions of ethnic minorities in Europe by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, is illegal. Many countries also have broader laws that criminalise genocide denial.
In Belgium, Holocaust denial was made illegal in 1995. The law stipulates, "whoever, denies, grossly minimises, attempts to justify, or approves the genocide committed by the German National Socialist Regime during the Second World War shall be punished by a prison sentence". In France, the Gayssot Act, voted for on July 13, 1990, makes it illegal to question the existence of crimes that fall in the category of crimes against humanity, on the basis of which Nazi leaders were convicted in Nuremberg trials. In Germany, "whoever publicly or in a meeting approves of, denies or belittles an act committed under the rule of National Socialism shall be punished". The Parliament of Hungary declared the denial or trivialisation of the Holocaust a crime punishable by up to three years' of imprisonment. The European Union has not prohibited Holocaust denial outright; a maximum term of three years in jail is optionally available to all member nations for 'denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes'.
A section of people, in the name of freedom of expressions, purposefully belittle the number of martyrs of our Liberation War. They do so with the evil intention of trivialising and minimising our sacrifices and in some cases tacitly justifying the crimes committed to our people. This, in turn, is a part of the shrewd attempt to create a dent on the 'dignity' of the ICTs. It is the high time the government of the day, that has undertaken the monumental task of bringing the perpetrators of the crimes committed to our people in 1971 to justice, thereby realising a long-cherished demand of the masses into reality, took this 'emotionally attached' issue into serious and immediate cognisance and enacted a law in line with the laws that have been enacted in European countries to put the matter to rest, once and for all. The proposed law would be a great shield against distortion of history of our liberation war as well and would serve not only the present generation but would bring tranquillity of history for the posterity.

The writer is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh

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