Increasing violence in Bangladesh after Islamist leader gets life sentence

Aerial view of Shahbag square taken over by protesters. Photo: shahbag.org.
 
 
Bangladesh has been rocked by violence following the handing down of a life sentence for radical Islamic leader Abdul Quader Mollah, for crimes perpetrated during the war of independence. While his supporters condemn the sentence, his detractors have taken to Dhaka’s central square to call for a stricter punishment: execution.
 
Protesters light candles at Shahbag square. Photo published to Twitter by @Shahbag2013.
 
In 1971, following nine months of fighting, Bangladeshi rebels supported by India defeated the Pakistani army, which was allied to Islamist groups including that of Quader Mollah’s, known as Jamaat-e-islami (“Islamic Party”). As a result, Bangladesh gained its independence, but at a heavy human cost: 1 million deaths, approximately 200,000 women raped, and between 8 and 10 million people displaced to India.
 
Forty years on, the war remains a festering wound. In 2008, the rise to power of the Awami League, a party that favored independence, paved the way for the creation of the International Crimes Tribunal for Bangladesh. Set up in 2010 with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the tribunal has the authority to judge those accused of “crimes against humanity, genocide, crimes against peace, war crimes, violation of all humanitarian law, and other crimes under international law”. On February 5, it convicted Quader Mollah of murder and rape.
 
Video published on Facebook by activists.
 
Just over a week after this sentencing, a new law was passed that affects the operation of this war crimes tribunal. The change sparked widespread anger. Under the law, prosecutors may now appeal all kinds of sentences. This means the government can now legally ask the Supreme Court to turn prison terms into life sentences — according to Amnesty International’s interpretation of the law — even though other international tribunals like the International Criminal Court in the Hague refuse to sentence defendants to death.
 
This reform has exacerbated the anger of activists from Quader Mollah’s party. Clashes with police began on the night of the verdict and have increased in intensity following the law’s passage. They have now spread to several cities in Bangladesh and even claimed several lives last weekend.
 
Officers from Quader Mollah’s Islamic party also threatened several journalists and bloggers who allegedly published “blasphemous” messages online. On February 15, an architect and blogger named Haider, who was well known for his secular views, was murdered. An investigation is underway.
 
Protesters in Shahbag square. Photo: Shahbag.org.
 
However, Islamists are not the only ones who are upset with the sentence. Since February 5, Dhaka’s Shahbag square has been occupied by thousands of Bangladeshis who deem Quader Mollah’s life sentence to be insufficient. They are calling for the death penalty.

“Sentencing genocidal maniacs to death is not a human rights violation”

Hasan Ahmed (not his real name), 23, lives in Dhaka. He is taking part in the protests in Shahbag square, calls himself a liberal, and says he does not support any political party. He has been blogging in Bangla for the last seven years.
 
Protesters are present in Shahbag square around the clock, rotating off with one another. There are no tents, nobody is camping, and the weather is good. Women and children can be seen there in the middle of the night, despite the fact that Bangladesh has never been a very safe country for women. On the first nights, I could not believe there was such calm. People are helping each other out; there is no central authority.
 
Aerial view of Shahbag square occupied by protesters. Photo: shahbag.org.
 
Radical Islamic protesters are very violent against those who support the Shahbag square movement. Last Friday, after the prayer, some of the protesters vandalized outdoor stages used for Shahbag movement meetings in several cities and desecrated the national flag. In Dhaka, they tried to take over Shahbag square by arriving on mopeds at three different entrance points, but the police were able to rein them in.

Of course, there have been some police abuses. But when the police are attacked with homemade explosives, should they really remain stoic? That said, some policemen did lose their composure, and it is also true that some Islamic radicals as well as passersby were killed near the riots. These incidents require independent investigation.
 
“The radical Islamic protesters are poor and easy to manipulate”
 
The February 17 legislation will not cause the government to ask for the death penalty; it just modifies the appeals procedure. The current government has in the past collaborated with Jamaat-e-islami, so there is no reason to believe that it wants to send war criminals to the gallows. Unless, of course, it is being pressured to do so, and that is why we are protesting – to apply pressure.
 
To me, to sentence to death a person that has committed two or three murders is a human rights violation. But when it comes to genocidal maniacs, when they have killed hundreds of thousands of people and raped 200,000 women, they deserve capital punishment. Furthermore, if Jawaat-e-islami returns to the government, it could very well select a president who will pardon war criminals, most of whom are members of this party. That is why the Shahbag movement is also calling for the tribunal to be permanent.
 
The members of Jawaat-e-islami are wrong and are lying: they want people to believe that we want to outlaw all religious parties. They said that all bloggers were atheists and apostates. That is all false. There is a great divide between Islamic radicals and the rest of the population, which is largely a question of education. Many of the Islamic radicals who riot did not have access to a secular, scientific education. They are very poor people and often become mercenaries that are easy to manipulate.
 

“I wonder if the executive branch hasn’t been supporting the Shahbag square movement”

Hussein Talukdar, 25, works as a pharmacist in Dhaka. He writes several blogs (here and here) where he shares his opinions on current events in Bangladesh.
 
Protesters who support the [radical Islamic party] Jamaat-e-islami protested this weekend despite having been forbidden to do so by the government. That’s why the protests degenerated, as they often have since the start of the month. They are asking for the court to set up an independent panel of judges, because they believe the international tribunal’s judges are influenced by the government, who led the charge in the trial [against Quader Mollah]. Furthermore, I thought that international tribunals were not supposed to be able to sentence people to death for war crimes; that’s what the International Criminal Court and all the international tribunals have been doing since 1993.
 
At the start, I was not really supporting any particular side, but police abuses and the lack of respect toward protesters supporting Jamaat-e-islami caused me to have more sympathy for them than for the Shahbag square movement. Especially because I get the impression that it’s a fake movement: when I see how the police protect them, I have to wonder whether the executive branch is supporting them. I can imagine that the executive would find it useful to see a crowd calling for a more serious sentence against the leader of an opposition party.
 
Certainly, Quader Mollah committed very serious crimes. But if we call ourselves a democracy, then everyone must have the right to protest, even those who support criminals. The ban on protests for radical Muslims has led to police abuses, which in turn feeds the radical Muslims’ own violent tendencies. I am not trying to excuse their actions, but we should not be surprised that they are coming to beat up protesters in Shahbag square, whom the police sides with.
 

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