Int Counsel Akhavan calls for immediate release of Hasina

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Dhaka, Feb 1 (UNI) Professor Payam Akhavan, international counsel to former Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has urged the military-backed caretaker government to immediately release her and ''allow justice to prevail over political expedience.'' ''There is no basis for keeping Ms Hasina in jail. First step is to release her and the second is to throw out the Chowdhury case because there is no basis to continue it,'' he told a pre-departure media conference today, wrapping up his five-day visit.

Canadian lawyer Prof Akhavan, who witnessed the trial proceedings at the special court on January 30 and talked to Ms Hasina, said, ''The longer the case is dragged on, more it tarnishes the image of an otherwise strong judiciary.'' The former premier was arrested on July 16 last year following an extortion case involving Tk 3 crore filed by Mr Azam J Chowdhury, managing director of power company East Coast Pvt Ltd.

''I am merely expressing the view that the judiciary must remain independent and above political interests, not least in a delicate transitional period leading to free and fair elections,'' Prof Akhavan said.

He said it was for the people of Bangladesh to decide who their leaders were and nobody must be excluded from the selection process for alleged misconduct except in accordance with guarantees of due process and the rule of law.

''If the prosecution is not being squeezed and pressured into getting a conviction, we will have a fair trial and Ms Hasina will be acquitted,'' the Canadian lawyer said.

Prof Akhavan, who previously served as a war crime prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, said the trial of Ms Hasina falls far short of human rights standards and is by no means isolated or unprecedented.

He said he had reviewed the file of the Chowdhury case and found the prosecution case to be ''wholly without merit''.

''I've significant familiarity with requirements of evidence and burden of proof in a criminal trial. And I remain baffled as to how a criminal accusation could be brought against Sheikh Hasina, let alone in a trial of such significance to the nation,'' he said.

Prof Akhavan, who was present at the court during Mr Chowdhury's deposition, said Mr Chowdhury had never accused Ms Hasina in his deposition. ''Mr Chowdhury explained in emphatic terms that he does not accuse Sheikh Hasina of criminal wrongdoing.'' He said the prosecutor insisted that Mr Chowdhury had indeed implicated Sheikh Hasina. ''For one moment, it appeared as if the prosecutor was the witness rather than Mr Chowdhury.'' He also mentioned procedural irregularities, denial of bail, resorting to emergency rules, denial of a right to public trial, denial of effective access to legal counsel, virtual solitary confinement of Ms Hasina and deterioration of her health.

''Under these circumstances, the only reasonable conclusion is that the case against her is wholly without merit based on any standard of due process,'' said Prof Akhavan.

Terming it a ''trial in camera'', he demanded that the trial of Ms Hasina should be held in public allowing the people to have access to this significant case and ensure its transparency.

''The willingness to persist with additional charges of a similarly questionable character only reinforces the impression that the objective of her relentless prosecution is her removal from political life rather than any consideration for justice,'' he stressed.

Prof Akhavan, who also attended a session of the High Court, said if the judiciary is allowed to fulfill its function without political interference and if the sanctity of its independence is respected, Ms Hasina will be acquitted of all charges as ''justice takes its natural course.'' He hoped that the caretaker government would not interfere in the judicial process so that all Bangladeshi citizens will regard such trials as fair and transparent rather than ''political instruments''.

Replying to a question, Prof Akhavan said he would share his observations and documents with the UN human rights committee to ensure that Ms Hasina's fundamental human rights are respected in accordance with international law.

UNI XC SKB GC1902

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