The immediate effect of the latest verdict from the “International Crimes Tribunal” was the worst single day of political violence in the history of modern Bangladesh. Actually a domestic court, the tribunal is tasked with trying the men who stand accused of committing atrocities during the 1971 war that gave birth to Bangladesh as a nation independent from Pakistan.
On February 28th it issued its third verdict: death by hanging, for Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, now one of the leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s biggest Islamist party, for the murder, abduction, rape, torture and persecution of his countrymen. His sentence had been expected.
Members of Shibir, the Jamaat’s student wing, and their supporters reacted furiously to the sentence against one of their leaders. Within 24 hours at least 35 people were killed, including four policemen. The police fired into the protesters, shooting dead at least 23 of them. In southern Bangladesh, attacks on the homes and temples of Hindus were reported. By the night of February 28th the government had deployed the Bangladesh Border Guards, a paramilitary force, in a bid to maintain law and order around the country. On the morning of March 1st it imposed a ban on public assembly in four volatile districts; in one of those places, it has been reported, Shibir activists beat to death a supporter of the government’s party.
The violent response to Mr Sayeedi’s sentence casts doubt on the notion that a public act of vengeance against the Jamaat might inspire a sort of catharsis for the country. If the reaction thus far is any guide, something much uglier is yet to unfold. Mr Sayeedi is far from being one of the most important leaders on trial but he is a twice-elected member of parliament and a popular preacher. His sympathisers have endeavoured to frame the contest between the prosecution and the defence as a battle between anti-Islamic elements of society and the pious.
In all 50 people have died in protests and other responses to the trials in the weeks since the court condemned another Jamaat leader to death on January 21st, after a trial in absentia. Two weeks after that, the same tribunal sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, Jamaat’s assistant secretary-general, to life in prison, on charges of murder, rape and torture. That judgment triggered huge protests centred around the intersection at Shahbag, in downtown Dhaka, against the Jamaat-e-Islami and its leaders. The demonstrations were peaceful, even as the demonstrators called for the maximum penalty to be brought to bear against the trials’ defendants.
Seven more verdicts are due, most of them are expected to come within a matter of months. They include the cases of the Jamaat’s current leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami, as well as the party’s head in 1971, Ghulam Azam. Under a newly amended war-crimes law the appeals process must be completed within 90 days. If, as is widely expected, the defendants are found guilty, then the entire leadership of the Jamaat, and also two senior members of the main opposition group, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), could be sent to the gallows this year.
At one point Mr Sayeedi’s conviction had been expected by mid-December. It was delayed after the presiding judge, Mohammad Nizamul Huq, resigned as chairman of the tribunal on December 11th, following questions put to him by The Economist and the subsequent publication in Bangladesh of private e-mails which cast doubt upon his role and upon the court proceedings.
The reconstituted tribunal struck down applications for a retrial on behalf of Mr Sayeedi and other defendants. Anyone judging the trials by international standards will be thoroughly unimpressed by the process. Reacting to Mr Sayeedi’s verdict, the International Commission of Jurists said the perpetrators of atrocities “should be brought to justice, not subjected to vengeance”. In this case one of the three sentencing judges had heard only a fraction of the prosecution’s evidence, another had heard none of it and the third had heard no evidence whatsoever.
The demonstrators at Shahbag, who had been calling for the death penalty, were jubilant at the news that Mr Sayeedi is to die. Many of them are calling too for a ban on the Jamaat itself, with the demand that its partisans should “go back to Pakistan”. The Jamaat’s violent reaction may sharpen some of these protesters’ dissatisfactions, as well as their demands: for further capital punishment, for a vote to have Bangladesh declared a secular state or for even broader change of its rotted-out political system.
Already the political consequences of the trials and the backlash are momentous. The trials are likely to be a vote winner for the Awami League (AL), the party of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. The AL have campaigned on the promise of holding the trials. When their spin doctors polled thousands of young Bangladeshis in the run-up to the 2008 elections they discovered something extraordinary: four out of five of their respondents supported the idea of holding the trials.
No matter if UN experts urge the government to ensure that the trials be fair. The awkwardness that comes with being a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights will not bother most voters very much. The AL must hope that wrapping up these trials will help sway undecided voters in the next parliamentary elections—which the AL’s politicians say they will aim to hold in December 2013.
In purely political terms, the chief consequence of the Jamaat’s violent fight for survival is the existential dilemma it presents for the BNP. The conventional wisdom within the party’s leadership has long been that the Jamaat’s street-fighting capabilities and the votes from its marginal seats make it an indispensable ally. Looming executions within its leadership, along with the fact that it is now polling a mere 1% of the popular vote, may well force the rest of the opposition to reconsider its options.
(Picture credit: AFP)