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British journalist found guilty of contempt in Bangladesh for questioning 1971 war death toll

People call for the trial of all war criminals during a rally celebrating National Victory Day in Dhaka, 16 December 2013
People call for the trial of all war criminals during a rally celebrating National Victory Day in Dhaka, 16 December 2013

REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

This statement was originally published on pen-international.org on 2 December 2014.

PEN International and English PEN are seriously concerned that British journalist David Bergman has been found guilty of contempt. PEN calls for the sentence and conviction to be overturned immediately.

According to PEN's information, at a hearing on 2 December 2014, the British investigative journalist David Bergman was found guilty of contempt and ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 taka ($65 USD). Failure to pay the fine will lead to seven days in prison.

The case relates to three blog posts published by Bergman on his popular blog Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal. In February this year, a lawyer who had no previous involvement with the International Crimes Tribunal, filed a court application claiming that three articles on the blog (one written two years earlier) were in contempt of the Tribunal. In response, the Tribunal first demanded an 'explanation' of the posts and held an oral hearing. On 17 April the court issued contempt proceedings. A more recent blog post, dated October 2014, explains the case in more detail.

Bergman has described the decision as 'hugely disappointing - and indeed I would say shocking, particularly due to my long standing journalistic work of many years'. Read David's reaction to the judgment in full on the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal blog.

Salil Tripathi, former co-chair of English PEN's Writers-at-Risk Committee and a former board member, who has recently published a book on Bangladesh's war of independence, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, said:

David Bergman has a well-earned reputation for being a fine investigative journalist. His contribution to our understanding of the Bangladesh War, and in particular the war crimes that took place, through the award-winning film, "War Crime Files," is significant. Like any good journalist, David investigates facts, analyses and interprets data, and raises questions, going as far as facts can take him. When he wrote about the number of people who died in the 1971 war, he was doing just that - trying to find out how many people died in the conflict. The figure has become controversial in Bangladesh's history, and unnecessarily so; whether three million died or 300,000, what happened in Bangladesh in 1971 was a crime against humanity and war crimes were committed - a point David himself has made in his writing. Those responsible for those acts - directly or indirectly - must be held accountable in a fair trial. David has been writing about the tribunal meticulously, respectfully, scrupulously and fairly. This verdict punishes the pursuit of truth and stifles any spirit of inquiry.

John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International, said:

There can be no justification for punishing David Bergman, who has simply engaged in the professional work of journalism and of public debate. No one can be in contempt of court or have committed a crime because he has examined numbers. Such a ruling brings personal hardships to him and his family. But it also damages the reputation of Bangladesh as a progressive democracy….

Bangladesh has struggled since its war of independence with political instability. Part of this struggle has centred on establishing a national narrative which unites the population – a population with a variety of languages and religions, even if Bangla and Islam account for the vast majority. However, you cannot impose a national narrative by narrowly freezing historic interpretations, including statistics. And you certainly cannot impose a fixed narrative by punishing those who are part of a process of developing a public discussion within or about the country.

Bangladesh is a country with a strong and positive culture; an impressive country facing up to major challenges. This ruling can only undermine its standing and its progress.


Read John Ralston Saul's full statement.

Bergman, who edits local English-language daily New Age and writes for the Daily Telegraph, has lived and worked in Bangladesh for over a decade.

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