Death sentence for Bangladesh opposition leader sparks protest

A war crimes tribunal ruled against a top opposition leader, drawing allegations that the court is being used as a political tool.

A.M. Ahad/AP
Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a senior leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, waves to media as he arrives to appear before a special war crimes tribunal in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday, Oct.1, 2013. The tribunal ruled Tuesday that Chowdhury should be put to death for his involvement in the killing of hundreds of people during the county's independence fight against Pakistan in 1971.

Political tensions deepened in Bangladesh Tuesday after a war crimes tribunal sentenced a top opposition leader to death for crimes related to the country’s 1971 war for independence.

The sentencing is the seventh verdict from the tribunal, which has so far tried and convicted only members of opposition parties, who complain of being targeted by the tribunal.

Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a senior leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was sentenced on charges of crimes against humanity, including counts of murder and genocide.

The special court was formed in 2010 by the administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who says the courts are necessary to provide justice for the victims of the war's bloodshed. Opposition leaders and their supporters counter that the courts are on a political vendetta to gut the opposition of its leaders before national elections in January.

Tuesday’s verdict resulted in street protests in the capital, Dhaka, that set on fire at least 15 vehicles, including buses and private cars. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) warned of more agitation ahead and has called a general strike for Wednesday in the country’s port city Chittagong, home of Mr. Chowdhury. 

The unrest follows protests this summer when the tribunal sentenced a top Islamist politician to 90 years in jail. In the past nine months, more than 100 people have been killed in demonstrations linked to war-crimes verdicts, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Some political analysts say that the unrest that erupts after verdicts are short-lived enough to not have a lasting impact on the economy or foreign investment, key concerns for the small south-Asian country. The country, about the size of New York state, is the second largest garment exporter to US and European markets. 

“If we look at the last seven verdicts, there have been some immediate unrests but the magnitude of the unrests were not lasting,” says Anis Pervez, a political analyst in Bangladesh and former professor at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh in Dhaka, who says that a large section of Bangladeshis want the war crimes trial to end and to usher in a new era of politics in the country.

But opposition parties are doubling down against the latest ruling, calling it a “travesty of justice.” Chowdhury’s wife, Farhat Quader Chowdhury, told reporters, “We will appeal against the verdict and prove that it was a farce.”

Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have criticized the war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh for failing to meet with international standards and for imposing the death penalty. 

“The many victims of horrific abuses during Bangladesh’s independence war and their families have long deserved justice but the death penalty is not the answer. One human rights abuse cannot make amends for another,” said Abbas Faiz, Bangladesh Researcher at Amnesty International. 

Bangladeshi authorities claim that 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women were raped in a bloody war with Pakistan aided by local collaborators. Independent estimates put the death toll between 300,000 and 500,000, mostly at the hands of pro-Pakistan Islamist militia.

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