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Bangladesh's main Islamic party has been deemed unconstitutional and banned from contesting January's general election. Experts fear a fresh wave of violence during the two-day strike the party has called in response.
They were meant to heal the many wounds inflicted during a 9-month war of independence against Pakistan in 1971 in which three million people are said to have been killed. But the trials conducted by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to investigate and mete out justice for the atrocities committed during the conflict seem to have also exposed underlying tensions in the country's political and religious identity.
More than 100 people have been killed in violent protests since January, when the tribunal, set up in 2010 under the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, began delivering verdicts. Among the sentenced are senior figures of the country's main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, (JEI) which opposed Bangladeshi independence during the war, but has denied accusations that some of its leaders committed murder, rape and torture during the conflict. So far, six party leaders have been convicted for crimes in connection with the war. Four of them have been sentenced to death.
The Islamic party recently received another blow which experts believe could heighten tensions between secular and religious-oriented groups in the country. On August 1st, Dhaka's High Court ruled in favor of a long-running petition which argued that the JEI should never have been allowed to register as a political party.
The petitioners had argued that the JEI's charter violated the country's secular constitution as it called for "the rule of Allah" and discriminated against minorities and women. As a result, the judges banned the party from participating in January's general elections.
'We are stunned'
Around 90 percent of Bangladesh's 153 million inhabitants are Muslim. Although an amendment made to the constitution in 1988 makes Islam the nation's state religion, the use of religion in politics is still barred.
The JEI, a key ally of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), appealed to the Supreme Court and called for a 48-hour nationwide strike beginning on August 12th. It also criticized the verdict as a political move by the ruling secular party, Awami League.
Senior JEI official Abdullah Taher told the news agency Agence France-Presse the court had bowed to pressure from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's secular government. "We are stunned. The ruling reflects the will of the government," he said, accusing the government of persecuting the party ahead of the elections.
A political ruling?
Ali Riaz, South Asia expert and professor at Illinois State University, doesn't exclude there might be a political connection. He argues that the timing of the hearing more than four years after its submission and the rapidity of the verdict is seen by many as a politically expedient judgment for the government, if not one influenced directly by them. "It is not unreasonable to assume that the current political environment, especially the demand by a section of people to ban the party, has influenced the verdict," Riaz told DW.
The expert is also of the opinion that the judgment might help the ruling party regain some of its lost support among the secular electorate, which is discontent with the government's performance and widespread corruption. Riaz says that with a record of poor governance and rampant corruption and the growing perception that democratic practices are being restricted, the ruling party could face a serious challenge in the upcoming election. "Some swing voters may side with the opposition as a result of the government's heavy-handedness in relation to the JEI."
'A zero-sum game'
This view is shared by William Milam, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center and former US ambassador to Bangladesh. "The message I am seeing in this verdict is that the High Court is completely politicized, and its verdicts are to be viewed with much caution and skepticism."
Milam believes there is one main political reason behind the ban, and that is to win the election. The expert argues that this is related to "a feeling of desperation" of the leaders of whichever political party running the government in Bangladesh that dare not lose the next election. "In Bangladesh, leaders seem to consider losing an election a near-death experience, and the Awami League leaders probably view losing the election scheduled for the end of this year as a sure death experience."
Milam explains this is due to the fact that in the formal democratic process that has developed in Bangladesh since 1991, the incumbent always loses, and the winner always wreaks vengeance on the loser. "It is, in truth, a zero-sum-game political culture. And the vengeance gets worse each time around."
High Court had 'no other choice'
However, Bhaskar Roy, political analyst at the India-based South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG) disagrees. The expert rejects the notion that there could be a political motivation behind the court decision, arguing that the ruling party would not gain much from the ban. "In the last elections the JEI won only 2 out of 300 seats. The maximum seats won by the JEI ever is 18. JEI is not a political challenge to PM Hasina, but a challenge to the stability and vision of the nation," Roy said.
He also argues that the court had no other option but to ban the Islamic party from the elections. The expert points out that since the JEI's manifesto violates the country's constitution. "The Election Commission asked the JEI officially several times to bring their manifesto in line with the constitution but the party declined," Roy told DW.
The experts also disagree on the role of the ICT and its verdicts. While Roy says the ICT was "absolutely necessary" for settling the issue of independence, Riaz believes that the government's moves during the past year have been prompted by "shrewd political calculation" instead of a secularist agenda. Other critics have voiced concerns over whether there is enough evidence, 40 years after the war, to ensure fair trials.
'A bleak future'
One aspect the experts agree on, nonetheless, is that more violent protests are likely to continue in the near future, especially since the ICT is set to pronounce further sentences against JEI and BNP members. Moreover, a Supreme Court decision is pending on whether or not to uphold the election ban imposed by Dhaka's High Court. "The JEI has no legal locus standi to protest against the ban, but it will try to create as much social chaos as possible. A lot of violence is expected in the coming months," says Roy.
Riaz points out that the scale and degree of violence will not depend solely on the JEI and its allies, but also on the government's reaction to any agitation. Although protests akin to those taking place in Egypt after the removal of President Muhammad Morsi are unlikely, "as of today, the political future of the country, in the short term, looks bleak," he says.