Bangladesh's Unfinished War

Article excerpt

Byline: Text by K. Anis Ahmedl

A Muslim country fights to remain secular.

A campaign of violence by Bangladesh's main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, has left 74 people dead since February 28. They are protesting the death sentence handed down against senior Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee by the International Crimes Tribunal, set up by the ruling Awami League.

Jamaat and its allies have attacked police and uprooted rail lines. Molotov cocktails hurled by them killed a pedestrian in the capital, Dhaka. In a district town, they threw an engineer off a three-story building. Mobs have also attacked members of the country's Hindu minority, setting their homes on fire. The police, in response, have opened fire, and most of the dead so far are Islamist activists.

As it happens, people opposed to Jamaat were already holding their own mass demonstrations, protesting the perceived leniency of the tribunal, since February 5. That day, another Jamaat leader, sentenced to life in prison rather than the maximum death penalty, emerged from court flashing a victory sign. This gesture incensed the public, who amassed in Shahbagh, a major city center, heeding the calls of young bloggers--much in the manner of the gatherings at Cairo's Tahrir Square. The crowd has repeatedly swelled to tens of thousands since it took control of the square.

Bangladeshis have smarted for decades, as those accused of war crimes during the country's Liberation War in 1971 were never brought to trial. Through the war, an estimated 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women raped by the Pakistani Army. (Bangladesh was East Pakistan at the time, geographically separated from West Pakistan by the vast expanse of India.) The Pakistanis were aided by local collaborators, many of whom belong to Jamaat.

The crowd at Shahbagh--loath to see Jamaat reap the forensic benefit of witnesses dead and evidence lost over the years--has chanted for the death penalty for convicted mass murderers. To their chagrin, neutral observers have questioned the adequacy of due process in these cases. But this trial was never going to be without controversy. …