DHAKA — Though the Bangladeshi government introduced the war crimes court in 2010 to heal the wounds from the nation’s traumatic birth, the first verdicts have plunged the country into its most turbulent chapters with scores being killed in protests over controversial convictions.
“The verdicts and the subsequent violence have set Bangladesh on the road to a protracted conflict, which may leave permanent damage to society,” Ataur Rahman, a Bangladesh expert based at the State University of New York, told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Thursday, March 8.
The former East Pakistan declared independence from Islamabad in December 1971 at the end of a nine-month civil war in which the government says three million people were killed.
Independent estimates put the figure much lower.
The Dhaka-based International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up in March 2010, is trying around a dozen defendants over their role in the war and has so far convicted three Bangladeshis, two of whom have been sentenced to death.
But all the defendants are either members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party or of the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), prompting accusations that the process is politically-driven.
Their claims that the tribunal is biased have been bolstered by a series of controversies, including the resignation of the chief judge last year after a tapped phone conversation showed him discussing the case with prosecutors.
Massive protests have engulfed Bangladesh over the past days following death sentences against Islamist leaders on alleged war crimes during the 1971 independence war.
Last week, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, leader of Jamaat-e-Islami group, was sentenced to death on charges of committing war crimes during the independence war.
The 73-year-old leader was the third person to be convicted by the war crimes tribunal, whose verdicts have been met with outrage from supporters.
At least 80 people have been killed in deadly violence since the death sentence was announced.
In a sign of the fresh polarization of divided Bangladesh, secular demonstrators responded with big protests.
Ataur Rahman, the Bangladeshi expert said the divide between Bangladesh’s Islamic and secular Bengali identities, which for decades had been “reconciled within the political process”, was now growing rapidly.
He warned of more violence in the coming months as the tribunal hands down its verdicts against seven more Jamaat officials and two from the BNP.
“It’s already a chaotic situation, exacerbated by the perception among many people that the war crimes tribunal is flawed and biased,” he said.
Other experts saw the rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia as a central feature of politics here for years and the verdicts have fanned the flames.
Zia has called the deaths of the protestors a “genocide” while Hasina has accused the BNP of siding with war criminals.
Democracy in a country wracked by coups, stands on the brink of disappearing unless the two women can agree to sit down and “save it from more bloodshed,” Mubashar Hasan, a political Islam researcher in Bangladesh, said.
“Chances are high that, the democracy of Bangladesh would be in jeopardy, if it is not already,” said Hasan, based at Australia’s Griffith University.
The death sentences against Islamist leaders have already drawn condemnations from Muslim groups around the world.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt described the sentences as “unjust” and condemned the deadly force used against citizens during activities protesting the evidently wrongful sentence.”
The ruling Ennahda party in Tunisia appealed to international organizations and human rights associations to raise their voices against police brutality against protestors.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board accused Bangladeshi Premier Sheikh Hasina of becoming a “dictator” and using the war crimes tribunal to crush the opposition.
Leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan Syed Munawar Hasan also warned that the death verdicts could plunge Bangladesh into civil war.
Bangladesh is the world's third-largest Muslim majority nation with a population of some 148 million.
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