Earlier this week, the Bangladeshi parliament amended a law paving the way for the state to seek harsher punishment for war criminals. The amendment came after two weeks of massive protests, in which thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets demanding capital punishment for those found guilty of war crimes during the country’s liberation war in 1971.
The protests began after the Bangladesh government-appointed International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up in 2010 to try war criminals, issued a life sentence to Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary general of the opposition Jamaat-i-Islami party, the country’s largest Islamic party. The ruling angered Bangladeshis who see life imprisonment as a miscarriage of justice given the severity of his crimes, which included killing a student and a family of 11, and aiding Pakistani troops in the killing of 369 others.
Thousands of protestors in Dhaka’s main Shahbag Square cheered the amendment passed on February 17. The amendment allows the government to appeal the verdict and seek a retrial. It also gives powers to the special tribunal to prosecute any organizations or political parties allegedly involved in war crimes. Further, it allows prosecutors to retroactively seek the death penalty for convicts who were given lesser punishments.
According to the Bangladesh Law Minister Shafique Ahmed, the amendment will “empower the tribunals to try and punish any organizations, including Jamaat-e-Islami, for committing crimes during country’s liberation war in 1971.” This could even eventually translate into a full-fledged ban on the party, as demanded by demonstrators.
The tribunal is also trying eight other Jamaat-i-Islami leaders, including its current and former chiefs, for alleged abuses during the 1971 conflict. It is believed that as many as three million people were killed in the war. Last month the tribunal delivered its first verdict, sentencing Abul Kalam Azad, a Bangladeshi Islamic cleric and former student leader of the Jamaat, to death in absentia for crimes against humanity.
Beginning on February 5 after a call from a coalition of bloggers, the protests in the capital intensified after the murder of architect-cum-blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider on February 15. Haider’s family contends that he may have been killed for his role in the protests and for his outspoken criticism of the Jamaat.
The Awami League government, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has staked her political office on bringing local collaborators in the 1971 war crimes to justice. If the government outlaws the Jamaat-i-Islami party, it would further exacerbate the secular-Islamist divide in Bangladesh.
The opposition, including Jamaat’s ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); believes the Hasina government is using the trial as a tool to target her political rivals. The Islamist party has held its own rallies to protest the latest amendment.
The trial faces other problems, too. In December, the head of the tribunal resigned over irregularities in its proceedings. Human rights groups that previously expressed concern over the trial’s lack of due process have also criticized the amendment. They contend that the power given to the state to target organizations for war crimes and to retroactively appeal sentencing in war-tribunal cases is inconsistent with international norms.
The amended law is still another step towards closing one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history. While the nation’s polity remains deeply fractured and dysfunctional, popular support for the trial suggests not only a desire to confront the past but a commitment to chart a secular future for Bangladesh.