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The Storytellers

'Only death will do' for Bangladeshi protestor

Aziza Ahmed wasn't yet born when Bangladesh gained independence after the bloody Liberation War against Pakistan. But the stories she heard convinced her that nothing but death will do for those convicted of war crimes.

"At some point, we were all shouting: death, death, death. And I did not feel bad about it at all." Aziza Ahmed recalls the protests on Dhaka's central Shahbag square in which she participated over the past year, calling for capital punishment for men convicted of war crimes committed during the 1971 Liberation War. Her apologetic smile reveals that she sees how contradictory it may seem: an educated and liberal woman, a young mother, a warm personality, shouting for another human being to hang.

But Ahmed is far from the only one. The protests that came to be known as the Shahbag movement quickly grew from a few dozen people to thousands after a controversial war tribunal passed its first judgment in January 2013. When Abdul Quader Mollah, who was convicted for rape and the murder of more than 300 civilians, was sentenced to prison for life in February, thousands of protesters took to the streets demanding his death. At the same time, supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami, the political party to which Mollah and many of the other men on trial belong, started to protest for them to be set free. More than 250 people have since died in clashes between the different groups of protesters and state forces.

"Certain people say that we are a bloodthirsty generation because we want the death penalty," says Ahmed, still smiling. Then emotionally, the 35-year-old activist explains her reasons. "These war criminals actually killed innocent Bengali people. If they had lived, Bangladesh would have been a better place to live. Good doctors, engineers, writers, poets, journalists. We want justice - for the lives we lost and for thousands of women who were raped."

An aerial shot of a thousands-strong crowd at a Shahbag protest in Dhaka

Thousands took to the Shahbag district in February to demand the death penalty

War memories endure

At least 200,000 civilians died during the nine months of that war, though Bangladeshi authorities put the number much higher, estimating 3 million. An estimated 200,000 girls and women were raped and 10 million people fled the country. Ahmed, born in 1978, heard the stories from her parents and two uncles who were part of the liberation movement. "In my childhood, table talk was always about the war," she remembers. "This thing works very strongly in us. This is very strange, since we have not seen the war."

Later, through her work at a national newspaper, Ahmed got to know women who were raped during the war. It is their memories, she says, that made the biggest impression. "Their stories on how they were kidnapped, how repeatedly they were raped, a few times a day, for months ... I just cannot fathom how miserable their lives must have been."

Immediately after the war the first Bangladeshi government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his party Awami League, passed a law providing for a tribunal to put war criminals on trial. But after Rahman was assassinated in 1975 the tribunal was never established. Rahman's daughter, the current prime minister and Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina, fulfilled electoral promises by establishing the International Crimes Tribunal in 2010. So far seven men have been sentenced to death in the course of 2013, including Mollah. The Shabagh protesters got their way when his life sentence was made a death sentence by a Supreme Court ruling in September. Mollah was the first to be executed, on December 12.

A smiling male demonstrator dressed in white dances in Shahbag Square

There was a joyous atmosphere at Shahbag Square when Abdul Quader Mollah was executed

Ahmed describes her mood as "ecstatic" when she hears the news of the execution, which comes in while we talk at her apartment. "I cannot describe how happy I am," she says. Her husband Sufi hugs her, tears in his eyes.

Shortly after, messages start flooding her phone: "Come to Shahbag," her friends and fellow activists invite her. Before we all go, she quickly sends Sufi upstairs with a message for her mother, who is there taking care of their six-year-old son. "But don't tell him I'm here," she says, referring to the boy, before explaining to me with a loving smile, "He won't let me go."

Fear of leniency

At Shahbag, Ahmed the mother makes place for Ahmed the activist, as she joins the few hundred people who have gathered to chat, cheer and shout of slogans. After a while, she warns me: "There is a rumor they will attack this place, I think we should leave now."

'They' are angry supporters of Jamaat, who have called Mollah's execution a political murder in the run up to the elections that are scheduled for January 5. As Jamaat-e-Islami is traditionally a coalition partner of the country's main opposition party, BNP, and all war criminals put on trial belong to these two parties, critics say the Hasina government is using the tribunal to weaken the opposition. To Ahmed, the upcoming elections are another reason to demand not only the death penalty, but also quick executions.

"If Sheikh Hasina changes, if she is not lucky enough to come for the second time, then what happens to these people?" she wonders. "There is always the possibility for BNP to shake hands with Jamaat and be lenient towards them. That's something I fear most."

Portrait of Aziza Ahmed

Some of Ahmed's foreign friends question her call for capital punishment

Jamaat supporters are not the only critics of the tribunal. International institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union, human rights organizations and local civil society leaders also question the standards of the tribunal, citing a lack of transparency, the focus on opposition party members, reports of intimidation of witnesses and the fact that war criminals according to Bangladeshi law - in contrast with international law - don't have the right to appeal in a higher court.

Asked about this international criticism, Ahmed is dismissive. "Just because we are a third-world country and you help us building our roads, you can tell us what to do?" she says. "All we ask for is the highest punishment according to our law, our constitution, for the people who murdered and raped their own countrymen."

She recalls how a German friend, one of the many foreign friends she made through work in the NGO-sector and who regularly stay in her house as guests, wrote to her: "I know you as a very warm and caring person, so how can you ask for this inhuman act?" Ahmed answers with the only comparison Europeans might understand. "If you still have a Nazi soldier, would you be nice to him? No," she says. "It's of course an inhuman act, but ... for humans. Not for inhuman people like that."

You can read some of Aziza Ahmed's posts on DW's Women Talk Online blog.

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