War crimes and punishment

Dhaka must balance demands of the young with constraints of the law

Politics in Bangladesh appears to have reached a critical, if not decisive, phase. For more than a fortnight now, tens of thousands of young Bengalis have been gathering at Shahbagh in the centre of Dhaka to demand that the war criminals of 1971, several of whom are now on trial, be given capital punishment. It seems the Awami League-led government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has heeded the call. With large sections of society expressing solidarity with the young, and with leading political, cultural and human rights voices calling for stiffer sentences for the Jamaat leaders and others charged with war crimes, committed in collusion with the Pakistan army more than four decades ago, President Zillur Rahman has signed into law a bill hastily introduced in parliament. It empowers international crimes tribunals (ICTs) to try not just individuals but also organisations for their role in 1971. That is clearly aimed at putting the Jamaat-e-Islami, the organisation as a whole, on the dock. In recent months, the Jamaat, whose murder squads allegedly killed ordinary Bengali citizens as well as leading Bengali intellectuals and professionals during the war, has not made matters easier for itself. Its members and young followers have gone on a systematic rampage on the streets of Dhaka and elsewhere in the country, attacking the police, vandalising and torching vehicles. Additionally, as a way of exerting pressure on the government to free its detained leaders, the Jamaat has been calling hartals, or general strikes, in the country.

The spurt in Jamaat violence became particularly noticeable after a rightwing cleric, Abul Kalam Azad, also known as Bachchu Razakar, was condemned to death by the ICT. Azad, who had, for years, compered Islamic programmes on television channels in Bangladesh, mysteriously fled the country before he could be taken into custody last year. He is reported to have found sanctuary in Pakistan. It was, however, the ICT judgment on Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah that left Bengalis across the spectrum bewildered. Mollah, against whom evidence of war crimes was irrefutable, was only given a life sentence. That and Mollah's apparent pleasure at the judgment — he flashed a victory sign outside the court — infuriated a group of young bloggers who quickly went on the offensive, demanding that Mollah be awarded a death sentence. In scenes reminiscent of Bengali protests against Pakistan during Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's non-cooperation movement in March 1971, crowds of young people surged to Shahbagh and quickly organised themselves into a vocal resistance group. For many days now, artists, writers, poets, journalists, business people and government servants have made their way to Shahbagh, which the young have renamed Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Square), to demand that the secular spirit of the country be restored. The organisers have, meanwhile, experienced tragedy. One of their leaders, architect and blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, was murdered. The death of the young blogger has only reinforced the determination of the young to carry on their movement. So far, there is no sign of people going back home. They have been lighting candles and singing the national anthem, apart from vowing to have all pro-Pakistan elements out of Bangladesh's politics.

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