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Anti-Muslim witchhunt fuels Bangladesh crisis

The brutal murder of blogger Ahmad Rajib Haider, a leader in the mass occupation of the Shahbag junction in the capital Dhaka, has deepened the crisis enveloping Bangladesh over the consequences of the country’s struggle for independence over 40 years ago.

Haider, who was a blogger under the pen name Thaba baba, was attacked outside his home on Friday night after returning from a 100,000-strong rally. His family and many others say that the student wing of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islam was behind the killing. Hundreds of thousands knelt in prayer on Saturday as his coffin was carried through the city.

Dhaka protest
Protesters in Dhaka

The Dhaka protesters in the city centre – seen by some as Bangladesh’s Tahrir Square – are demanding the execution of Jamaat leaders currently on trial for war crimes committed during the country’s struggle for independence from Pakistan.

That war ended in 1971 after a nine-month conflict in which some three million people were killed by the Pakistani army plus 200,000 women raped. Pro-Pakistani militias responsible for many of the killings are thought to have included Jamaat officials.

The legacy of the war still haunts Bangladesh. Some of those who carried out atrocities were not prosecuted and have even enjoyed long stints in power and children of victims are still afraid to use their parents’ names. Investigations into army crimes and who was responsible had a strange habit of disappearing and/or being classified for decades.  

Clashes between police and Islamists have intensified since last week after a senior Jamaat leader was sentenced to life imprisonment for mass murder. Rival protests by Islamists demanding a halt to the trials of Jamaat leaders have turned violent across the country, leaving 13 people dead.  Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and president of the ruling Awami League since 1981, has indicated that she would back a ban on Jamaat. Her party has had a super-majority in parliament since January 2009.

The Bangladeshi parliament yesterday amended a law which will permit the prosecution of Jamaat for war crimes. Jamaat leaders, along with the extreme right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are boycotting parliament. The amendments would ensure the rapid execution of any convicted Jamaat leaders and a 60-day limit enabling the Supreme Court to dispose of appeals.

As Human Rights Watch observers point out, the government has been directly interfering in the judicial process. The amendments violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which states that “no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.” 

Banning or attacking political parties, or removing web sites as the Bangladesh’s telecoms regulator has done with Jamaat,  is the wrong response to the crimes or any other religious or political organisation. It simply gives more power to the state and its security forces and can be turned against any political opposition.

In a population of over 150 million, 90% of Bangladeshi citizens are Muslim. However much one may be in favour of a secular state, the repression of Jamaat or any other Islamic parties will only make them go underground and potentially more popular. The banning of the Islamic Salvation Army opposition in Algeria and the cancelling of elections during the 1990s solved nothing. Instead, it contributed to a decade of terror, in which tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives.

Exploiting the Shahbag protests to promote an anti-Muslim crusade, as Nick Cohen does in the Observer, only helps fuel the state-sponsored myth of the “Muslim” threat.  There is no question that crimes of the past must be brought out into the open, those responsible prosecuted and there must be redress for the victims. But introducing the death penalty and banning political parties – which can be turned against any opposition – are dangerous steps in the wrong direction.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
18 February 2013

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Concerned Reader says:

You say "... introducing the death penalty and banning political parties – which can be turned against any opposition – are dangerous steps in the wrong direction." please get your facts right: the country already has death penalty – it's not being "introduced" for the war criminals now; the protests started from grassroots levels because the highest penalty was expected for the highest war crimes, and when that was not delivered, people thought the government had made some kind of a pact with the Jammat-e-Islami party.

What anti-muslim crusade do you see in Bangladesh, and what "state-sponsored myth of the muslim threat" ? These remarks are so far off the mark that I don't even know where to begin!


Corinna Lotz replies:
Dear Concerned Reader - you are right, the death penalty already exists in Bangladesh. But my last paragraph refers specifically to Nick Cohen. His anti-Muslim rhetoric is part of the state propaganda machine to justify attacking Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently, Mali.

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