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Opinion

Opinion: Bangladesh must abolish the death penalty now

Bangladesh's Law Minister responded to European condemnation of his country’s use of the death penalty. But his suggestion that Dhaka may rethink the issue in the future, isn't good enough, writes Grahame Lucas.

The Bangladeshi Law Minister Anisul Huq’s remarks on the death penalty came after a meeting with a European Parliament delegation in Dhaka on Thursday. According to reporters present, Huq responded to calls from members of the delegation to abolish the death penalty in his country by categorically ruling out any changes to the law at the present time. This was a coolly calculated slap in the face for his visitors from Europe and a clear sign that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina intends to continue her quest to call Islamist leaders to account for the crimes they allegedly committed during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971.

It reinforces the view that the Dhaka government has no intention of rethinking the political impact of the so-called International War Crimes Tribunal. The Tribunal has been underway in the country since 2010 and has imposed a series of death sentences on high profile Islamist leaders, several of whom have already been hanged.

DW's Grahame Lucas

DW's Grahame Lucas

International criticism of the Tribunal’s work has been consistently damning. Defense lawyers have been prevented from carrying out their work properly, some witnesses for the defense have not been allowed to testify and some of the testimony by prosecution witnesses has been farcical and based largely on hearsay. The latter is not surprising seeing how much time has elapsed by the alleged crime and the trial. The Tribunal clearly does not meet international judicial standards. Nonetheless, it continues to impose the death penalty against the Islamist opponents of the Dhaka government.

The death penalty is irreversible and when used against political opponents it creates martyrs and triggers further political instability. While the death penalty remains popular with Hasina’s Awami League and its supporters, its continued use is without doubt creating a fertile breeding ground for Islamist terror. Just recently James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence in the US, warned that Hasina’s continuing efforts to undermine the political opposition would foster the rise of Islamist terrorists.

He is right. Moreover, Clapper pointed to the fact that Islamist terrorists had claimed responsibility for the slaying of at least 11 progressive writers and bloggers since 2013. However, Sheikh Hasina remains in denial of the obvious consequences of her policies and claims that the so-called Islamic State does not have a foothold in her country, despite evidence to the contrary. At the very least she is guilty of sticking her head in the sand, at worst of an extreme form of cynicism.

While the desire to finally close the 1971 chapter in the country’s past is both honorable and understandable, Bangladesh continues to move away from the path of reconciliation between those who support secularism in the majority Muslim country and those who wish to see Islam play a greater role. With more of those convicted by the War Crimes Tribunal now awaiting execution, the need for dialogue across the political spectrum is greater than ever, as it the need to abolish the death penalty now, rather than after the damage has been done.

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