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Bangladesh court convicts British reporter of contempt

December 2, 2014

A Bangladesh court on Tuesday found an award-winning British journalist guilty of contempt for questioning the official death toll of three million in the country’s 1971 independence war.

Judges from a special war crimes court ruled that a blog and two other articles written by David Bergman “hurt the feelings of the nation” and ordered him to pay a 5,000 taka ($65) fine or go to prison for a week.

The case was seen as a test of the country’s commitment to free speech after Bergman cast doubt on the official version of one of the most contentious issues in Bangladesh’s short history.

Delivering the verdict in the capital Dhaka, presiding judge Obaidul Hassan told the courtroom that “freedom of expression can be exercised in good faith and public interest”.

“David Bergman neither has good faith nor an issue of public interest,” the judged added.

The International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court which has found several top opposition leaders guilty of mass murder, asked the government to probe Bergman’s reporting on its work.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has justified the trials on the grounds that the scale of bloodshed in Bangladesh’s war of secession from Pakistan demands that perpetrators be brought to justice, even four decades later.

But critics say her government has deliberately exaggerated the death toll as a way of intimidating her opponents and countering unease from abroad about a trial process lacking any international oversight.

Most of the war deaths have been blamed on troops from Pakistan, which ruled over Bangladesh from 1947 — when the territory was known as East Pakistan — until 1971.

But Hasina’s government says Bangladeshi militants were behind some of the most brutal killings, including the massacre of intellectuals.

Most independent estimates say the actual toll of war dead is in the hundreds of thousands.

– ‘No scope to appeal’ –

Bergman’s lawyer Mustafizur Rahman said the court verdict was a big disappointment but there was “no scope” to launch an appeal.

“It was our submission before the tribunal that the laws of Bangladesh permit constructive criticism of court orders and proceedings in a restrained language by a person having knowledge of its affairs,” Rahman told AFP.

“It was our submission before the tribunal that David Bergman acted within those bounds.

“David Bergman has never been against the process of the tribunal. As a matter of fact, he brought attention to the issue of prosecuting persons having committed war crimes in 1971 at a time when the rest of the world was on the verge of forgetting this issue.”

The 49-year-old Bergman won a British television award in 1995 for a documentary exposing alleged war criminals who had taken refuge in the United Kingdom.

Lawyer Abul Kalam Azad, who filed the petition against Bergman, told AFP the judgement was “fair and right”.

“No one has the right to question the three million death toll in the 1971 independence war. It is a settled issue,” he added.

Bergman, who is an editor of local English-language daily New Age and also writes for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, has been living in Bangladesh for more than a decade. He is married to a top human rights lawyer.

His conviction came when Bergman was writing a series of reports in the New Age on the alleged involvement of the country’s security forces in the abduction and disappearance of 19 opposition activists before disputed elections held in January of this year.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.