Dhaka: Veteran opposition lawmaker Salauddin Qader Chowdhury, a key suspect in Bangladesh`s Liberation War time "crimes against humanity", on Thursday appeared before a special tribunal for the first time and demanded that he be allowed to defend himself.
Chowdhury, a leader of ex-premier Khaleda Zia`s main opposition BNP, was brought before the packed International Crimes Tribunal from the suburban Narayanganj Jail under heavy security, two weeks after his arrest from the capital on the 1971 war crime charges.
"During the nearly 30 minute (hearing) he (Chowdhury) complained he was tortured and was not allowed to talk to his lawyers since his arrest," a witness said, adding that the high-power tribunal set January 17 the next date of hearing.
It was Chowdhury`s first appearance at the tribunal at the Old High Court Complex, where he demanded a court order allowing himself to defend his own case despite the presence of some 30 lawyers as defence counsels.
The three-member tribunal headed by Justice Nizamul Huq started the trial proceedings at about 10:30 am local time and fixed the next date for hearing the charges against Chowdhury.
Police arrested Chowdhury on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh`s independence from Pakistani rule on December 16. He was remanded in custody for five days under a lower court order when investigators quizzed him on another criminal charge.
A special investigation agency, constituted along with the International Crimes Tribunal in March this year, recently said they had gathered "enough evidence" of "crimes against humanity" against Chowdhury.
He was particularly suspected for masterminding the 1971 killing of Nutun Chandra Singha, a philanthropist and industrialist, in southeastern port city of Chittagong, also Chowdhury`s hometown. He is said to have instigated the Pakistani Army to kill Singha.
Chowdhury is also widely accused of running a "torture cell" at his residence in the port city during the war time.
In a recent TV interview, Chowdhury denied the charges, claiming he spent most of time abroad during Liberation War. But a former minister in the past regime of President HM Ershad and Chowdhury`s neighbour at his village home in southeastern Chittagong, Ziauddin Bablu, claimed that he was sent abroad by the then Pakistani junta for treatment after he survived a freedom fighters` assault for allegedly carrying out atrocities siding with the occupation forces.
Apart from Chowdhury, five stalwarts of fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, including the party`s chief Matiur Rahman Nizami and secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed, were now in jail to face the trial on war crime charges.
The tribunal along with a special investigation agency and prosecution cell was constituted in line with the election pledges of Premier Sheikh Hasina`s Awami League.