Exclusive: Dhaka’s Tahrir Moment?
Protesters continue to demand death penalty for the war crime convicts
Syed Zain Al-Mahmood Dhaka
A massive protest in Dhaka aimed at forcing the courts to punish the leaders of the country’s main Islamist party has entered its tenth day with organizers calling for massive turnout over the weekend.
Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets of Dhaka and other cities on Tuesday to observe a three-minute period of silence in solidarity with a protest movement demanding capital punishment for Islamist leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islami party who are accused of war crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence.
At 7 PM local time on Thursday, people all across the country stopped all activities to join a call by bloggers and online activist groups to “light a candle for justice” -- the climax of ten days of protests aimed at forcing the government to change a court verdict that sentenced an Islamist leader to life in prison.
A war crimes tribunal on February 5, found Abdul Quader Molla, the fourth highest leader of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami, guilty of mass murder and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to a life term. But the verdict sparked immediate protests, with demonstrations taking place both for and against the judgment – underlining the polarization that the trials have caused in Bangladeshi society.
At the Shahbagh intersection near the University of Dhaka, a group of bloggers began a sit-in on February 5, demanding death penalty for Molla and others on trial for war crimes.
“He was found guilty of mass murder and so the verdict of life imprisonment does not make sense,” said Asif Mohiuddin, one of the bloggers who began the protest. “The people demand justice for the victims of 1971.”
A steady stream of people including families with children have flowed into Shahbagh, the hub of demonstrations in the heart of Dhaka, expressing solidarity with a hardcore group of activists, who have vowed to remain until those on trial for war crimes are hanged.
Many analysts say the unprecedented demonstrations signal a coming of age for Bangladesh’s middle class youth – a group that has often appeared politically apathetic and disengaged. On Wednesday, demonstrators waved flags, sang patriotic songs and danced in Shahbagh square, emboldened by the swelling numbers and by the broad support expressed by civil society groups.
“Egypt had Tahrir, India had its movement against sexual harassment, now Bangladesh has Shahbagh,” said Samira Sadeque, a journalist and a blogger.
Not far from the Shahbagh demonstrations, homemade bombs exploded as activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami fought running battles with police. Several people received gunshot wounds and police confirmed that dozens of Jamaat activists had been arrested.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet has responded to the demonstrations by moving to amend the law governing the tribunal, giving prosecutors greater power to appeal against verdicts.
Quamrul Islam, a junior law minister, told local media on Sunday that the law would be changed to allow the government to seek harsher punishment on appeal. The prosecution currently can only appeal against acquittals.
Most newspapers in Dhaka have carried breathless headlines praising the ‘popular uprising’. But some observers have criticized what they see as the narrow focus of the Shahbagh gathering. “It’s great that people are coming together,” said Shahana Siddiqui, a senior executive for an NGO. “But the demands lack direction. It should question the legal process in an orderly way and really be about much more than sentencing a group of people to death.”
In an indication that the movement is driven by emotion just as much as logic, some demonstrators said they would camp out until those in the dock for war crimes were hanged.
“We’re not legal experts,” said Parvez Alam, a well-known blogger and one of the coordinators of the bloggers’ group that called for the protests. “The people have raised the demand that all war criminals must receive maximum punishment. It’s up to the government and courts to execute the people’s verdict.”
Mohiuddin, an outspoken blogger who has been arrested in the past for his part in organizing protests against students’ fee hikes, denied that the movement had a narrow focus. “This is also a wider expression of no confidence in the political culture and the lack of judicial independence,” he said.
The Jamaat-e-Islami and its ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has painted many of those demonstrating in Shahbagh as government loyalists who have infiltrated a wider protest movement. That view is testament to the vast differences over how the trial’s supporters and detractors view the nation's troubled political climate.
Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971 after a brutal nine month war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, many of them at the hands of Islamist militia who wanted the country to remain a part of Pakistan.
Molla, 64, and seven other leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami have been on trial before the International Crimes Tribunal. They stand accused of committing atrocities during the ‘war of independence’, and a former party leader was sentenced to death last month.
International human rights groups have questioned the tribunal's proceedings, including the admission of hearsay evidence and the alleged disappearance of a defense witness outside the courtroom.