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Bangladesh executions: What could be the repercussions?

Recent executions of two opposition leaders in Bangladesh have drawn international criticism. But expert Siegfried O. Wolf tells DW it is crucial for the South Asian country to bring the 1971 war criminals to justice.

On Saturday, November 21, Bangladeshi authorities executed two high-profile politicians over war crimes committed during the 1971 independence war against Pakistan.

Opposition leaders Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury were put to death in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, following a controversial trial.

Mujahid and Chowdhury were convicted of genocide, torture and crimes against humanity during Bangladesh's (formerly East Pakistan) struggle to break away from Pakistan. They were allegedly collaborating with the Pakistani army.

In a DW interview, Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), and a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute, explains why dealing with the 1971 war continues to haunt the South Asian country, and why it is important for Bangladesh to rein in Islamist extremism and global jihadist groups.

Siegfried Wolf

Wolf: 'The government must openly admit that IS exists in the country'

DW: What could be the repercussions of the executions of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)? Will it further polarize Bangladeshi society?

Siegfried O. Wolf: The second largest opposition party, the JI, is directly linked to war crimes during the War of Liberation in 1971. Top leaders of this Islamist party have been charged with war crimes over the past four decades. In 2013, the JI unleashed violence throughout the country, especially in its strongholds. Although nationwide protests indicate a strong opposition to the trials conducted by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), it is unlikely that the recent executions will create much unrest in the country. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Bangladeshis are in favor of the trials and want them to proceed.

The executions will not further polarize the country, but they will expose the existing disharmony in the country. The BNP and JI are likely to use it to undermine the present government of Prime Minister Hasina Wajed and the secular foundations of Bangladesh.

How fair were the ICT trials?

The ICT was established in 2009 to expose and punish those who carried out systematic killings and rapes of millions of Bengalis during the 1971 War of Liberation. In this context, the ICT investigates and prosecutes suspects involved in genocide and crimes against humanity committed by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators in then East Pakistan.

Some human rights organizations, as well as the opposition BNP and Islamist parties, have raised questions about the fairness of the trials. The critics of the ICT allege that the objectives of the war crimes tribunal are political. They say that the trials and subsequent executions are "politically-motivated murders." Rights groups also slam the South Asian country for the use of capital punishment. At the same time, there are many people who support the tribunal and believe it is doing an important job. There was a strong demand to establish these courts and prosecute those who committed crimes during the liberation war.

There are reports about the presence of "Islamic State" (IS) militant group in Bangladesh. IS has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in the country in the past few months. Can IS benefit from the political turmoil and rising extremism in Bangladesh?

The political chaos in Bangladesh goes hand in hand with the systematic and persistent Islamization process in the country. Over the past decades, the military and democratic rulers have incorporated Islam in the constitution, and religion has become a dominant narrative in the country's politics. We can say that Bangladesh has effectively been transformed into an Islamic state. As a result, Islamist parties have been able to assume a bigger role in the country's politics.

The situation is ripe for an international terrorist group like IS to establish itself in Bangladesh. It will surely describe the executions as a "crusade against Muslims."

Secretary General of Jamaat e Islam, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid (L) waves from a police vechile as he is transported to the central jail following his court verdict in Dhaka on July 17, 2013 (Photo: Getty Images/AFP/STR)

'Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Bangladeshis are in favor of the trials and want them to proceed'

The Awami League government is trying to deal with the growing IS threat, but not so openly. The ban on some Islamist groups and the ICT sentences are part of these attempts. But a lot more needs to be done to make sure that Bangladesh doesn't become a ground for global jihadist movements. The government must openly admit that IS exists in the country and adopt a comprehensive counterterrorism approach to deal with the threat.

Why does the 1971 war of independence continue to play an important role in Bangladeshi politics?

Because those who were involved in the 1971 war crimes are still threatening the country's peace and stability. They still maintain, or have established new links, with Pakistan-based terror groups as well as international jihadist organizations like IS and al Qaeda. There will be no peace in Bangladesh until these people and groups are brought to justice.

Siegfried O. Wolf is Director of Research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), and a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute.

The Interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.