DHAKA (AFP) – A Bangladeshi court on Tuesday found an award-winning British journalist in contempt for questioning the official death toll of three million in the country’s 1971 war for independence.
Judges of a special war crimes tribunal ruled that a blog and two other articles written by David Bergman “hurt the feelings of the nation” and ordered him to pay a fine of 5,000 taka (S $ 84 ) or go to jail for a week.
The case was seen as a test of the country’s commitment to free speech after Bergman questioned the official version of one of the most controversial 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 in the public interest”. “David Bergman has neither good faith nor a problem of public interest,” added the judge.
The International Crimes Tribunal, a national tribunal that found several senior opposition leaders guilty of mass murder, has called on the government to investigate Bergman’s reports of his work.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina justified the trials on the grounds that the scale of bloodshed in Pakistan’s Bangladesh Civil War demands that those responsible be brought to justice, even four decades later.
Critics say his government has deliberately exaggerated the number of people killed in order to intimidate its opponents and counter foreign unrest over a process devoid of international oversight.
Most of the war deaths were blamed on troops from Pakistan, which ruled Bangladesh from 1947 – when the territory was known as East Pakistan – until 1971.
But Ms Hasina’s government said Bangladeshi activists were behind some of the most brutal killings, including the massacre of intellectuals.
Most independent estimates indicate that the actual number of war dead runs into the hundreds of thousands.
Lawyer Abul Kalam Azad, who filed the petition against Bergman, told AFP the judgment was “fair and just.”
“No one has the right to question the three million dead in the 1971 War of Independence. It is a settled question,” he added.
Bergman’s attorneys argued that his blog posts were “accurate, fair and logical” and his comments on the court “were well within the allowable bounds of fair criticism.”
Bergman, who is the editor of the local English-language daily New Age, has lived in Bangladesh for more than a decade. He is married to a leading human rights lawyer.
The 49-year-old journalist, who also writes for the British Daily Telegraph, was part of a team that made a groundbreaking film exposing so-called Bangladeshi war criminals who took refuge in the UK.
The film won a British television award in 1995.
His conviction came when Bergman wrote a series of reports in the New Age about the alleged involvement of the country’s security forces in the kidnapping and disappearance of 19 opposition activists ahead of the disputed elections held in January this year. .