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‘The Economist’ Accused of Hacking by Bangladesh's War Crimes Tribunal

Categories: South Asia, Bangladesh, Breaking News, Citizen Media, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Law, Politics, War & Conflict

The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) [1] is an ongoing tribunal in Bangladesh that was set up to investigate and provide justice regarding the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 [2].

On 6 December, 2012 the war crimes tribunal accused [3] The Economist magazine of hacking and asked it to explain how it got emails and heard Skype conversations between Presiding Judge Mohammed Nizamul Huq and Mr. Ahmed Ziauddin, a war crimes expert of Bangladeshi origin living in Brussels, Belgium. The two individuals have known each other for 25 years. The court ruling accused the Economist of “interfering into the work of the tribunal and violating the privacy of its presiding judge” as the magazine contacted the judge directly about the conversations.

On 8 December, 2012, The Economist responded with a blog post [4] where it claimed that it had “heard 17 hours of recorded telephone conversations and seen over 230 e-mails between the two men”. They also published a short account of their dealings with Mr Huq and Mr Ahmed. The situation escalated when a local daily Amar Desh [5] [bn] published some transcript of the conversations. That material was sourced from a ‘foreign country’, the report suggests.

Amnesty for 1971 war criminals

The Bangladesh government claims [6] up to three million people were killed and between 200,000 and 400,000 women were raped [7] by Pakistani Army and local collaborators in one of the worst genocides [8] in the history of mankind.

According to a tri-patriate agreement [9] between Bangladesh-Pakistan-India in 1974, 195 Pakistani prisoners of war were handed over to Pakistan from Bangladesh pending trial and Pakistan never prosecuted them. A War Crimes Fact Finding Committee revealed [10] that the local collaborators of the Pakistani army were involved in at least 53 types of crimes. Among the local collaborators were a large number of members of Jamaat-e-Islami [11], one of the largest Islamic parties of the subcontinent, who opposed Bangladesh and sided with Pakistan during the war. In an effort towards national reconciliation the Government announced amnesty [12] (pdf) to those who had been convicted or accused of offences under the Collaborators Order (1972), except those accused of murder, rape or arson. Later all prosecutions were stopped and all the accused were released leaving a scar on the society who believe that justice was not done.


Girls carry placards of painted pictures of alleged war criminals demanding a quick trial. Image by Rehman Asad. Copyright Demotix (30/11/2012)

1971 war crimes and amnesty revisited in 2010

The ruling Bangladesh Awami League formed the ICT on 25 March 2010 by amending some aspects of the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 of Bangladesh and the trial of war criminals was one of their election pledges. The tribunal is currently trying 10 individuals including several Jamaat leaders on charges of arson, rape and other atrocities committed during the 1971 war.

The ICT has been criticized by a number of human rights organization for certain flaws in the tribunal, they raised concerns about fair and impartial proceedings. On the other hand civil society in Bangladesh accused Jamaat-e-Islami for spending millions of dollars for lobbying [14] against the ICT in several countries including USA and the UK [15]. Jamaat is also conducting street protests across the country to stop the trial of their leaders, often using violent means such as attacks against the police [16].

The Economist's involvement in the Tribunal 

The blogosphere erupted with reactions after the news that The Economist magazine had been accused of hacking emails and Skype conversations between Presiding Judge Mohammed Nizamul Huq and war crimes expert Mr. Ahmed Ziauddin. Aunarjo Sangeet [17]asked:

বিচারকের কথা/আলোচনা তাঁর অনুমতি ছাড়া কেন রেকর্ড/হ্যাক/প্রচার করা হবে? এই প্রশ্নটির জবাব নিশ্চয়ই মাননীয় আদালত চাইবেন। বাংলাদেশের আইনানুযায়ী (এবং ব্রিটিনের আইনেও) হ্যাকিং শাস্তিযোগ্য অপরাধ।

প্রশ্ন হচ্ছে এরা কতদিন থেকে সক্রিয়? জামায়াতের হ্যাকাররা কতদিন থেকে হ্যাকিং করছে?

Why was the private conversation of a judge recorded/hacked or published without his consent? The respected court should certainly ask why. Hacking is a punishable offence in Bangladesh (as well as in UK).

The question is how long were they active? How much infringement of privacy was done by Jamaat hackers?

This investigative post [18] [bn] reveals the suspicious activity of a pro-Jamaat Facebook page titled ‘Awami Tribunal’ which has been publishing the audio and videos of the Skype conversations hosted in Facebook and YouTube long before the local newspaper published it.

David Bergman, a journalist covering the ICT questions in his own blog “Would Economist publication of Tribunal e-mails be in breach of Editors Code? [19]” He comments:

So whether or not the Economist would be in breach of the Editors code in the publication of these e-mail communication depends upon whether there is a strong enough public interest in their publication, and that depends upon how serious the level of impropriety the published communication shows.

He adds in another post [20]:

There are many in the government, and amongst its supporters, who think that the Economist has it in for the Awami League government. This is principally because of an article which claimed that the Awami League government won the last elections with ‘bags of Indian cash and advice [21]‘ (without putting forward any evidence). It has also been consistently critical of the war crimes trials [22].


The former Jamaat chief Gulam Azam is taken to the Dhaka Central Jail as per the order of the tribunal. Image by Firoz Ahmed. Copyright Demotix (11/1/2012)

Bloggers also discussed whether there is enough public interest in the disclosed conversations which dealt with mainly personal affairs and some discussions on the trial.

Pritom Das [24] comments [bn]:

আহমেদ জিয়াউদ্দিন এবং নিজামুল হক নাসিম দুইজনেই চাইছেন সরকারের তাগাদা অনুযায়ী তাড়াহুড়ো না করে একটু সময় নিয়েই কাজ শেষ করতে। একাধিকবার তারা ‘ফেয়ার ট্রায়াল’ নিশ্চিত করার কথা উল্লেখ করেছেন।

Both Ahmed Ziauddin and Ziaul Haque Nasim suggested that the trial should not proceed hastily as per government's request, proper time should be given. They have talked about a ‘fair trial’ a number of times.

Arif Jebtik [25] writes [bn]:

ড.জিয়াউদ্দিন কোনো দলের নেতা কিংবা কর্মী নন, একেবারে আন্তর্জাতিকভাবে খ্যাতিসম্পন্ন একজন আইনজীবী যার মূল এক্সপার্টিজ ও আগ্রহের জায়গা হচ্ছে যুদ্ধাপরাধ। তিনি যদি আদৌ এরকম কথোপকথনে অংশ নিয়ে থাকেন, তাহলে সেটি ট্রাইবুনালকে আন্তর্জাতিক গ্রহণযোগ্যতা এবং সঠিক মান অর্জনে সহায়তা করার উদ্দেশ্য থেকেই করেছেন- এজন্য তিনি সাধুবাদ প্রাপ্য।

Dr. Ziauddin is not a political activist or leader, rather an internationally reputed lawyer with specialization in war crimes. If he engages in such conversation, that would only to help maintain the quality of the tribunal – so he should be commended.

গোটা আলোচনার স্ক্রিপ্ট নামে যে দীর্ঘ লেখাটি আমারদেশ পত্রিকায় প্রকাশিত হয়েছে তার অধিকাংশই ব্যক্তিগত আলোচনায় ভরপুর। একই সঙ্গে দুই আইনের মানুষ নিজেদের মধ্যে দেশের এবং আন্তর্জাতিক বিভিন্ন আইন আদালতের খবর নিয়ে আলোচনা করেছেন। এরকম আলাপের মাঝে আমি দোষ দেখি না।

The long transcript published in the Daily Amar Desh was filled with personal affairs. The both men of law discussed different issues of trials of home and abroad. I don't see any discrepancy.

It remains to be seen whether the Economist will publish the story and whether this will have any impact on the Tribunal.