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Asia

Violence in Bangladesh 'likely to continue'

Another top Islamist has been convicted of war crimes in Bangladesh. The verdicts have sparked violent protests. South Asia expert Henrik Maihack examines the political and social impact of the ruling.

On Monday, July 15th, a war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh sentenced the former leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, Ghulam Azam, to 90 years in prison for masterminding atrocities during the country's 1971 independence war. The 91-year-old Azam was found guilty of five charges of planning, conspiracy, incitement, complicity and murder during the war against Pakistan.

Two days later, another top leader of the party, Ali Ahsan Mujahid, was found guilty on five charges, including genocide, and sentenced to death. Both sentences sparked riots in the nation's capital.

DW: What has triggered the Islamists' protests?

Henrik Maihack: The protests are directed against the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) and the sentences passed on former and incumbent leaders of the country's second-largest opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Early this week, they were sparked by the sentencing of Ghulam Azam, who was found guilty of helping to create militias for the Pakistani army which committed atrocities against both independence fighters and civilians.

Henrik Maihack, director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's office in Dhaka, Bangladesh.(Photo: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)

Maihack believes the lines that separate the judicial from the executive branch in Bangladesh are blurry

The tribunal described Azam as the "mastermind" behind the war crimes committed by the militias. The judges explained that he was spared the death penalty because of his age and poor health.

What are the Islamists aiming at?

The Jamaat-e-Islami party (JI) is demanding the retraction of the rulings as well as the release of Ghulam Azam, the four party members previously sentenced and of all the other accused. The JI regards the court's ruling as a government conspiracy. They accuse Bangladesh's ruling party, Awami League, of using the tribunal for suppressing the Islamist party, and thus increasing its chances of winning in the upcoming parliamentary elections due in January 2014. Until the end of 2006, the JI was the most important coalition partner of today's largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

At the same time, an urban alliance made up of secularly oriented students has been protesting in Dhaka. They demand the death penalty for Azam and reject the verdict as being too lenient. The so-called Shahbag movement fears the release and return of some of the JI members that have either been sentenced or are still on trial.

What is the majority of Bangladeshis expecting of the tribunal? What is their view on the riots?

The majority of people supports the tribunal and, in particular, the use of capital punishment. The memories of the atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistani army fighting alongside the JI-led militias during the war of independence are still vivid. Furthermore, the fact that the former BNP-led government appointed well-known war criminals as ministers was met with incomprehension and rage.

Former head of opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party Ghulam Azam (C) escorted by security personnel and lawyers as he emerges from the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka on January 11, 2012. (Photo: AFP)

Azam was sentenced to 90 years in prison for masterminding atrocities during the independence war

An examination of the events that took place in 1971 remains necessary. Many believe that the death penalty is the only way to guarantee that war criminals don't assume political posts in the future.

However, there are also those who sympathize with the JI's position and denounce the ICT as un-Islamic. Since the beginning of the year, the opposition has been increasingly successful in diverting attention from an objective debate about the trial.

The JI, nonetheless, failed to reach five percent of the vote in the past two general elections in 2001 and 2008. This is an indication of the moderate political views held by the majority of Bangladeshis.

In your opinion, what will be the political consequences of the ongoing dispute?

The ruling party is becoming increasingly nervous ahead of general polls. It recently suffered heavy losses in mayoral elections in five large cities. Corruption scandals on a national scale contributed to the disappointing results at the polls.

At the same time, a fundamental movement linked to private Koran schools has been increasingly successful in mobilizing voters to support opposition parties such as the JI and BNP by simply criticizing the government of being "anti-Islamic."

Are more protests to be expected ahead of the election?

I believe that further violent protests are foreseeable. On the one hand, the ICT is set to pronounce further sentences which could spark more riots and shake the country. On the other hand, government and opposition parties haven't yet agreed on how the elections will be conducted. Since 1991 polls in Bangladesh had been conducted by a neutral interim government. But the Awami League removed the provision from the constitution in 2011. The opposition parties don't believe the government - or the electoral committee - is capable of conducting free and fair elections.

As long as the ICT keeps handing down sentences against top JI members, the Islamist party will keep issuing calls for protests. The BNP has already announced that it will push for the installation of a neutral interim government. Political violence in Bangladesh is likely to continue in the second half of this year unless the government and the opposition hold a constructive dialogue.

Henrik Maihack is director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's office in Dhaka, Bangladesh.