The truth will make you free

Among the most powerful of tools of repression that authoritarian regimes use to eliminate opposition is censorship

The truth will make you free
Veritas liberabit vos. Rarely have my thoughts been drawn to this biblical injunction as intensively as these past few days. My own country cannot avoid a contentious and difficult dialogue over its actions and values as the truth emerges about the behavior of some of its agencies in the early years of the so-called “war on terror.” Nor should it want to. At the same time, I feel relief that, at least, the truth is out, and now we must face up to it. And though it may have been overlooked in the brouhaha about whether torture can ever be justified in a perceived national emergency, other pernicious assaults on truth were occurring around the world—not the least of which were in South Asia.

There is a good reason, validated in history for several hundred years, that freedom of speech is a universally agreed human right. That is because the truth is an enemy of those who would divert human progress to their own self-aggrandizing ends. That is why I believe it healthy that the ugly truth of our inexcusable actions to get ahead of the terrorist organizations that wanted to, and still want to, attack us has come out. The debate will last for years, but the US will be stronger for it.

Isn’t truth the first casualty of authoritarianism? Authoritarian regimes give themselves away no matter how industriously they try to disguise the truth of their nature. And the first truth to go is the truth of their intentions. Elections can be held, courts can render verdicts, the media can publish or broadcast—these features that distinguish real democracy can, unfortunately, be counterfeited with little effort by any enterprising government with the will and intention to do so. But the sufficient condition for success in such an endeavor is the absence of a counterforce, not just an organized political opposition, but an independent judiciary, which is tough enough to stop them.

The truth of authoritarianism is its goal of formal executive power over the state and, thus, control over political institutions and groups such as political parties, and elected or unelected legislative and interest groups. To achieve this, authoritarian regimes use repression, often violent repression, to shut down the political space for any kind of opposition.
Isn't truth the first casualty of authoritarianism?

Among the most powerful of tools of repression that authoritarian regimes use to eliminate opposition is censorship. Opponents cannot be allowed to undermine the control of such regimes by public criticism. The sometimes slow but always steady attrition of media freedom of regimes bent on authoritarian rule goes hand in hand with shutting down judicial independence, as an independent judiciary following the rule of law can block an authoritarian state from ultimately getting its way. Every incremental step to reduce judicial independence is a step toward authoritarian rule.

In this context, I have been reading the 43-page verdict of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of Bangladesh which convicted David Bergman of contempt. Bergman, a long-time British journalist now residing in Bangladesh, who trained in law in the UK, has run blogs on political happenings in that country and the various cases that come before the ICT. The court sentenced Bergman to be confined “until the rising of the court,” and a fine of 5,000 Taka. As the court rose 7 minutes later, or so I am told, Bergman spent all of 7 minutes in confinement; 5,000 Taka amounts to about $65 at today’s exchange rate.

Not a very serious penalty one would say for contempt of court, so perhaps only a symbolic verdict. But the symbolism of this trial and the verdict are much more serious than the de minimus sentence. It is a symbol of the malleability of the court system in Bangladesh to the government’s wishes, not perhaps a final nail in the coffin of free speech in Bangladesh as many elements in the media continue to write openly of the government’s erosion of democracy. For example, the newspaper that Bergman writes for came out only a few days after the verdict with a revelation that over 20 local opposition leaders had disappeared suddenly and without explanation. But, certainly this verdict is another diminishment of the political space the media and any opposition have to speak the truth about this one-party government’s incursions against human rights and democratic norms. And it signals, perhaps, that the Bangladesh constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of speech, already weak and replete with loopholes, is now effectively repealed by judicial fiat.

Bergman’s “contempt” was in what he wrote about the war of 1971. He compared various scholarly estimates of the number deaths to the figure of 3 million used by the government and its allies, and accepted by most Bangladeshis. Among scholars this figure is controversial and not generally accepted. Secondly, he discussed the trial in absentia of Abul Kalam Azad who was sentenced to death despite legal and procedural gaps in the trial. Both of these blogs were posted several years ago, and only brought to the attention of the court by a third party 2-3 years after they had been published. In both, which I have read, he is measured, objective to all sides of an issue, and respectful. I do not have the space to discuss the blogs at greater length, but for those readers interested in further detail the blog is available at

I am not legally literate, so to comment on the text of the verdict would be a rash venture which I shall not undertake. Suffice to say that it seems to me to be quite emotional for a legal document, which befits the subject which is certainly emotional and involves deeply-held views which emanate from the searing personal experience of many Bangladeshis who suffered through a horrid period in the country’s history. Clearly Bergman was treading on very slippery ground, but my take is that what he wrote in those blogs was extremely careful to avoid raising such emotion, very objective and inclusive of all views. I saw nothing that would have, in my view, constituted contempt of the ICT.

There are two key take-aways to this story: 1) the ICT decision on Bergman will decrease political space for the opposition to Sheikh Hasina as it indicates that the judiciary’s role as bulwark against the rapidly growing authoritarianism is significantly diminished, and may well be finished; 2) number controversies aside, there is no doubt that many thousands of Bangladeshis died because of the 1971 war. As yet their families and descendants, despite the ICT, have not found real justice. This very unhappy chapter in the histories of Bangladesh and Pakistan, seems likely to affect both countries for another generation or two. It is time for both to face up to the truth of that horrible time.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.