Sentencing of Islamist leader brings unhealed rifts to surface in Bangladesh

Thousands in Bangladesh protested the death sentence handed to an Islamist political leader for crimes committed during the independence war. At least 40 were killed in the clashes.

A.M. Ahad/AP
Bangladeshi activists celebrate the death sentence awarded to Delawar Hossain Sayedee, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday. The verdict against Sayedee highlighted the deep rifts that still exist in Bangladesh 42 years after independence from Pakistan.

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More than 40 people have died and hundreds have been injured in clashes in Bangladesh after a war crimes tribunal yesterday sentenced an Islamist leader to death for crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

Delawar Hossain Sayedee, vice president of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islamifaced 19 charges, including rape, forced conversion of Hindus to Islam, and collaborating with the Pakistani Army to kill unarmed civilians, according to Bloomberg. Eight of the charges were proved “beyond reasonable doubt,” according to prosecutors. He is the third leader of the Jamaat party to be convicted by the tribunal.

The verdict against Sayedee highlighted the deep rifts that still exist in Bangladesh 42 years after independence from Pakistan. As thousands came out in the streets in jubilation over a sense of justice for war crimes yesterday, waving flags and hugging each other, backers of opposition parties protested the courts decision as politically motivated, reports the Guardian. Protesters clashed in more than a dozen areas around the country, according to Reuters.

Protesters set fire to a Hindu temple and homes south of the capital, Dhaka, and additional police were deployed amid fears that there would be further violence after Friday prayers. The Islamic Foundation, run by the ministry of religious affairs, asked area mosques not to inflame the situation as the Jamaat party announced a two-day strike protesting the verdict, set to begin on Sunday.

The newspaper The Hindu called Sayedee’s case the “most sensational war crimes case so far.”

The war crimes tribunal was created in 2010 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rahman, who was Bangladesh's leader during the independence war. The judges noted in their verdict that international law does not impose a statute of limitations on war crimes.

“As judges of this tribunal, we firmly hold and believe in the doctrine that ‘justice in the future cannot be achieved unless injustice of the past is addressed,’ ” Justice A. T. M. Fazle Kabir commented in a written summary of the judgment, reports The New York Times.

The protests for and against Jamaat have convulsed Bangladeshi politics, demonstrating that the country has still not healed from the bloody 1971 conflict, in which an estimated three million people were killed and thousands of women were raped. Before the war, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, separated from the rest of that country by a wide expanse of India. The war pitted Bangladeshi separatists against Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators, who were known then as the Razakar Bahini.

"I didn't commit any crime and the judges are not giving the verdict from the core of their heart," Sayedee told the tribunal, Reuters reports.

Detractors say the tribunal – which has been criticized by human rights groups for not following international standards – is being used by Prime Minister Hasina to take out political opponents. Jamaat is one of the two biggest opposition parties in the country, alongside the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Nine other people, mostly Jamaat party members, are also facing war crimes charges, reports Reuters. Hasina’s party denies the accusations of politicizing the tribunal.

The Times reports that despite charges of a political witch hunt, “to many Bangladeshis, the real injustice has been that war criminals have remained free for decades.”

Yesterday’s protests weren’t the first: They have been ongoing, but markedly less violent, since a Feb. 5 conviction of Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah, who was sentenced to life in prison. Upwards of 200,000 protesters came out to Shahbagh square in Dhaka. 

“Many political analysts say the Shahbagh protests are the most significant spontaneous political movement in Bangladesh in decades,” reports The Times. “Though the movement may be suffused with idealism and proud nationalism, it also bears a hard edge, with demands for the execution of convicted war criminals.”

Sultana Kamal, a prominent human rights leader in Dhaka, said that she disagreed with the calls for the death penalty, but that they reflected the cynicism of Bangladeshis who have seen war criminals evade punishment for decades….

“We have a problem in accepting that they are demanding the death penalty,” Ms. Kamal said in a telephone interview. “But we understand that it was from a nervousness among the people here that unless they are given the highest penalty in the land, these people will come back out.”

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