Bangladesh court convicts British reporter of contempt

2nd December 2014, Comments 0 comments

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.

Critics say her government has deliberately exaggerated the number of people killed as a way of intimidating her opponents and of countering unease from abroad about a 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.

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's lawyers have argued that his blog posts were "accurate, fair, and logical" and his comments about the court "fell well within the permitted limits of fair criticism".

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

The 49-year-old journalist, who also writes for Britain's Daily Telegraph, was part of a team that made a groundbreaking film exposing alleged Bangladeshi war criminals who took refuge in the United Kingdom.

The film won a British television award in 1995.

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.

© 2014 AFP

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