Bangladesh Considers Ban on Islamist Party

By

SYED ZAIN AL-MAHMOOD

DHAKA, Bangladesh—The Bangladesh government said Sunday it was considering banning an Islamist party that it blames for the death of an online activist who helped organize the mass protests that have swept the nation’s capital.

Ahmed Rajib Haider was found hacked to death late Friday in front of his home, police said. The 26-year-old blogger helped coordinate protests to demand harsher punishments for Islamists accused of committing atrocities in the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The demonstrations are Bangladesh’s largest in two decades.

An activist during a protest at Shahbag, Dhaka, demanding the death sentence for war crimes committed in 1971.
An activist during a protest at Shahbag, Dhaka, demanding the death sentence for war crimes committed in 1971. M.R.K PALASH/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, speaking on television after visiting Mr. Haider’s home Saturday evening, blamed Jamaat-e-Islami, the nation’s largest Islamist party, for his slaying.

Shafique Ahmed, the law minister, said Sunday that the government was considering banning Jamaat-e-Islami because of its “violent tactics.”

“The parties which practice killing people cannot be allowed to operate,” he said at a news briefing.

Jamaat-e-Islami denied involvement in Mr. Haider’s death and accused the government of a “massive propaganda campaign.”

“Neither Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami nor [its affiliates] has anything to do with this horrifying crime,” a statement said. “We call for an independent investigation.”

Late on Sunday, lawmakers from the Awami League-led government of Ms. Hasina passed an amendment to the law governing the war-crimes tribunal to allow prosecutors to retroactively appeal for harsher sentences. The original law only allowed the state to appeal an acquittal.

The new amendment also gives the government the power to try organizations for war crimes, a move that analysts say may be a prelude to prosecuting Islamist parties at the tribunal.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the 1971 conflict, many of them at the hands of an Islamist militia that opposed splitting from Pakistan. In 2010, Ms. Hasina set up a tribunal to investigate war crimes, an attempt to heal wounds that had festered for four decades. Eight of the 10 suspects on trial at the tribunal are from Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

The tribunal delivered its first verdict last month, giving a death sentence, in absentia, to a former Jamaat-e-Islami leader. A second ruling this month sentenced Abdul Quader Molla, a senior party leader, to life imprisonment.

That second verdict sparked mass protests in Dhaka. A steady stream of people including families with children have flowed into Shahbag, a leafy boulevard in the heart of Dhaka, calling for Mr. Molla to be hanged.

“He was found guilty of mass murder and so the verdict of life imprisonment does not make sense,” said Asif Mohiuddin, one of the online activists that called for the street protests. “The people demand justice for the victims of 1971.”

On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators remained at the protest site, vowing to stay camped out until the government gives all war criminals the death penalty. They shouted slogans such as, “Hang them all or we won’t go home!”

The government’s consideration of a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami will likely exacerbate the tensions between Islamists and secularists in one of the world’s poorest nations.

Bangladesh’s opposition parties say Ms. Hasina’s secular government is using the war-crimes tribunal to attack her political opponents. And they claim police are using excessive force to crack down on antigovernment demonstrators in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country.

On Saturday, police said they shot and killed three protesters from Jamaat-e-Islami during clashes in Cox’s Bazar, a city in southeast Bangladesh. Jamaat-e-Islami has called for a countrywide general strike Monday to protest the killings.

“The main aim of this drama is to ban the Jamaat-e-Islami on grounds of popular demand,” said Shafiqul Islam Masud, a leader of the party.

The government denies meddling in the war-crimes tribunal and says it is trying to maintain law and order. Monirul Islam, a police spokesman, denied that police have used excessive force against demonstrators.

The protests underscore the deep divisions in Bangladesh over the 1971 war. Many middle-class urban residents with secular outlooks back the calls for harsher sentences at the war-crimes tribunal. Islamist parties, meanwhile, draw support in rural areas.

Human-rights groups said the amendment passed Sunday would undermine international standards of justice. New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement Thursday, said the move appeared designed to allow an appeals court to overturn Mr. Molla’s life sentence and impose the death penalty. The group also faulted the police for using excessive force against demonstrators.

“Justice for victims of war crimes and other serious abuses during the 1971 war of liberation is essential,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But a government supposedly guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to overrule court decisions when it doesn’t like them.”

The protests have dominated the news agenda in Bangladesh, garnering largely positive coverage. Commentators have noted that the large numbers of demonstrators reflect widespread disappointment with constant political instability, corruption and economic stagnation.

But some observers have criticized what they see as the gathering’s narrow focus.

“It’s great that people are coming together, and there is no doubt that those convicted of war crimes should be severely punished,” said Shahana Siddiqui, a writer and development activist. “But this is the time for us to channel our energy into stronger democratic practices, not just scream for blood and revenge.”

Source: Wall Street Journal