Bangladesh opens 1971 war crimes trial

DHAKA - The first trial of a suspect from Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence began on Sunday, in a widely-criticised court process that the government says will finally bring traitors to justice.

Delawar Hossain Sayedee, now a senior figure in opposition Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami party, stood in the dock as the war crimes tribunal opened in Dhaka with a lengthy statement from the chief prosecutor.

Ghulam Arif Tipoo listed the crimes that Sayedee is alleged to have committed during the 1971 war, including the murder of nearly 60 people when he was in charge of a militia that opposed the country splitting from Pakistan.

Sayedee is charged with crimes against humanity, genocide, murder, rape and enslavement. If found guilty, the 71-year-old could be hanged.

Tipoo said Sayedee's trial was essential for "the establishment of rule of law, democracy and human rights in Bangladesh and it is key to the future of the nation".

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina - the daughter of independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - established the tribunal after she returned to power in 2009, but it has been accused of targeting her political opponents.

Sayedee has been held in detention along with four other suspects from his party and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Both parties have dismissed the tribunal as a government "show trial", while the New York-based group Human Rights Watch has said the court's legal procedures fall short of international standards.

But prosecutor Tipoo said the court process would be fair.

"The whole of Bangladesh was turned into mass grave during that time," he said. "Under this circumstance, the trial is not aimed at political or individual axe-grinding."

The court, called the International Crimes Tribunal, is a domestic set-up with no United Nations oversight or involvement.

Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which was called East Pakistan until 1971, has struggled to come to terms with its violent birth.

The current government says up to three million people were killed in the war, many murdered by locals collaborating with Pakistani forces.