Dhaka. A special Bangladeshi court on Wednesday opened its first case against an Islamist leader charged with atrocities during the country’s bloody 1971 war of independence.
The first trial at the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up last year to try people over war crimes during the battle for liberation from Pakistan, is of 71-year-old Delwar Hossain Sayedee.
Sayedee, a senior official of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party, has been accused of killing more than 50 people, torching villages, rape, looting and forcibly converting Hindus to Islam.
Judge Nizamul Huq opened proceedings in Dhaka and immediately adjourned the court until August 18, when formal charges will be read out.
Sayedee’s lawyers argued that they needed more time to prepare for the next hearing, saying that documents provided by the prosecution were “illegible”.
“The new date is not giving us sufficient time — we requested eight weeks,” Tanvir Ahmed Al Amin said.
“The prosecution had many months to prepare, we’ve had weeks, it is not practical. We will have one day to consult with our client ahead of the next hearing.”
Bangladesh, which was called East Pakistan until independence, has struggled for decades to come to terms with its violent birth.
The current government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, says up to three million people were killed in the war — many murdered by Bangladeshis who collaborated with Pakistani forces.
Hasina is the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was killed in a 1975 coup.
Rival politicians have dismissed the tribunal as a “show trial” motivated by her ambitions and have pointed out that all of those accused of war crimes are opposition leaders.
New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch has said rules being used to prosecute the suspects fall short of international standards.
The 1971 war began after tens of thousands of people were killed in the capital Dhaka when Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight, a brutal campaign intended to deter Bangladeshis from seeking independence.
But the killings and subsequent military campaign, that allegedly included rape and torture, served to create a groundswell of public support for the pro-independence movement.
Sayedee, who was in court on Wednesday, has been held in detention since June 2010, along with four other war crimes suspects from Jamaat and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Other suspects are expected to be charged and the trials are likely to last several months.