Organized largely by bloggers and activists, groups of people numbering as high as 100,000 have occupied the Shahbag district of Bengali capital, Dhaka, since early February.
The demonstrators gathered to call for the execution of Abdul Quader Mollah, the secretary general of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami. Mollah was sentenced on February 5 to life in prison after being convicted on over 340 counts of a number of crimes, including murder, rape and torture, during Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan in 1971. Jamaat opposed Bangladesh's independence and, like Mollah, some of its members are accused of committing war crimes during the conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
While protests, which have largely been organized online under the Twitter hashtag #shahbag for the occupied district, initially centered around Mollah, they have grown to call for the complete ban of Jamaat-e-Islami.
"The Shahbag protest, in fact, is against Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the root of all evil religious forces," blogger and Shahbag protest organizer Asif Mohiuddin told DW. “The execution of Quader Mollah is only a symbol. If we achieve victory in this battle, we will be one step closer to a secular Bangladesh.”
Clashes escalated on Friday resulting in the deaths of at least three people with some 200 more injured as police fired live rounds at Jamaat protesters who threw stones at authorities while demanding the end of war crimes charges leveled at Jamaat members as well as calling for the deaths of bloggers they accused of blasphemy for insulting the Prophet Mohammed and Islam.
Tempers have flared on both sides of the Shahbag protests since the death of blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider, who was found hacked to death by a machete outside his home near Dhaka last week. The atheist blogger was part of the network of bloggers organizing the Shahbag protests and was accused of writing anti-Islam posts. Police have questioned suspects but not arrested anyone in connection with his murder.
Like Haider, Mohiuddin, who in 2012 won one of The Bobs, Deutsche Welle's Online Activism Awards, has seen his name turn up on kill lists circulating the country. He was hospitalized after a being stabbed eight times in a January attack.
"Newspapers backed by Jamaat-e-Islami have published reports with our photos," he said, referring to himself and the other secular bloggers on the lists, including two other winners of the Deutsche Welle Online Activism Awards. "Mosques and madrasas now have our pictures and they are looking for us."
Mohiuddin said the government told authorities to provide for the safety of the people named on kill lists, but added that neither he nor any threatened bloggers he knows had received any such protection.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle on Thursday, Amnesty International researcher Abbas Faiz said neither Shahbag protestors nor accused or convicted war criminals should face the execution.
"We believe that the initial stages of (the Shahbag) movement, their go for the death penalty, is not going to lead to the future that this movement itself is looking to bring to the country," he told DW. "The movement should call for justice. All of the victims and the survivors, they deserve justice, and it is the responsibility of the government to bring them to justice. But that justice has to respect certain principles."
Shahbag protesters, Mohiuddin said, are fed up with a lack of political and judicial transparency and a system that has allowed those accused of committing atrocities during the war that ended with Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan holding high political office instead of being put on trial.
"The whole political and economic system is corrupt," Mohiuddin said. "Starting from government ministers to all political leaders out there."
It remains unclear if the Shahbag protests will ultimately lead to substantial change in Bangladesh, but for Mohiuddin the key will be whether Shahbag convinces young people become involved in politics.
"People don't have any political ideology and political thinking so criminalization of politics becomes very easy," he said. "We want to change the structure, and to do it we need our youth to participate in politics and grow their political consciousness. This protest is a new liberation war of Bangladesh to get rid of all kinds of fundamentalism."