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Shahbagh protests: Will Bangladesh set an example for the region?
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
04 March 2013

Bangladesh is in a big state of turmoil. Convicting the war criminals of 1971 has become a major issue. Thousands and thousands of people have been gathering at Dhaka's Shahbagh square since February 5, demanding stricter punishments to war criminals.

The immediate trigger for this movement was the International War Crime Tribunal's (ICT) verdict on Abdul Quader Mollah, the assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the influential political party which is an alliance partner of the Opposition led by Khaleda Zia. Mollah was awarded life imprisonment for his crimes committed during the war. But people are not happy with the verdict. They think he should have been given death sentence.

Actually, the trial of war criminals was in the election manifesto of the Awami League. In line with the promise, the Awami League government had established the ICT in March 2010. For three years, ICT has been conducting trials against the war criminals. Many top leaders of the JI, including its chief Motiur Rahman Nizami, are in jail, charged with criminal offences. JI is known for supporting Pakistani forces during the freedom struggle.

The arrest of top leaders has made the future of JI uncertain. People are now demanding ban on the party. But, JI is opposing the trials, claiming that the trials are politically motivated. The JI has even threatened of launching a civil war in country, if the trials are not stopped.

The Shahbagh uprising, nearly similar to that of the national movement in 1971 which ultimately led to the country's freedom, is becoming a big worry for JI and other radical forces. So, JI is trying to create terror psychosis in the minds of people. The activists of JI and its student organisation, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), have now let loose a reign of terror across the country immediately after the verdict on Dalwar Hossain Sayedee. On the day of the verdict, which was marked by a hartal called by the JI, the activists clashed with members of law-enforcement agencies across the country, leaving at least 42 people killed. This included three policemen also. More than 1,000 people were injured.

It appears the people of Bangladesh are not deterred by the pressure tactics of JI. On the day of the verdict, hundreds and thousands of people gathered at Shahbagh, defying the hartal. And the whole nation turned into a festive mood as soon as the ICT awarded death sentences to JI leaders Dalwar Hossain Sayedee and Nayebe Amir. This verdict has reinstalled people's faith in ICT.

Dalwar Hossain Sayedee, the influential Jamaat leader, has been convicted for his crimes against humanity during the 1971 Liberation War. The 73-year-old JI leader was found guilty in eight cases out of a total of 20 filed against him for his involvement in killing, torture, rape, looting, arson, and forced conversion of two Hindu women to Islam in his home district of Pirozpur during the 71 War.

Now trial of the war criminals is a reality and it is time for the country to realise the ideals of 1971. The country, which lost 3 million people and also the modesty of half a million women during the liberation war, has every reason to seek justice. The trial is also important to reassure the country's existence as a secular nation and ensure the values it was created for.

The country's desire to try war criminals could be ascertained from the ongoing month-long mass movement, supporting the trial of war criminals. The protests initially began through Bloggers and Online Network, an organisation of bloggers. And soon it turned into a national movement with people spontaneously responding to the call of the bloggers. Within days, Shahbagh turned into a sea of humanity. All people wanted were just justice.

The government has amended the ICT law and included provision of appeal. Under the amended law, both prosecution and defence have the right to appeal.

The Shahbagh protests could become a defining moment in Bangladesh's history, bringing back secularism in to the midst of political debate in the country. If Bangladesh becomes successful in restricting the fundamentalist forces out of politics, it could be a new beginning in the region, now beset with fundamentalism.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)