Clashes between police and supporters of Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party killed 35 people after a war crimes tribunal sentenced one of the group’s leaders to death for atrocities committed four decades ago.
Police tightened security amid concern there would be further violence after Friday prayers. The dead included three policemen, while 800 people were injured, as Jamaat-e-Islami activists rioted yesterday following the verdict against Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 73, the Samakal newspaper said.
The clashes expose the deep divisions in Bangladesh over the war that led to its independence from Pakistan in 1971. While mainly secularist, middle-class protesters have been occupying a square in Bangladesh’s capital since Feb. 5 demanding harsher penalties for those found guilty by the tribunal, supporters of Islamic parties say the trials are politically motivated.
“The Jamaat-e-Islami is fighting for its political survival,” said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group, based in New Delhi. “If its leaders are proven in court to have done all these things, it will severely hurt” their electoral prospects, he said.
Jamaat called a two-day nationwide strike starting March 3 to protest the death sentence and the killings of its supporters in yesterday’s protests. The party said 44 people died in the clashes. Paramilitary forces were also deployed.
The Islamic Foundation, which is run by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, asked for mosques to avoid inflaming the situation. The group made the appeal after protesters at a mosque in Dhaka on Feb. 22 threw stones at police, smashed gates and set fire to prayer mats in protest at the ongoing war crimes trial and Facebook postings they said were blasphemous.
Sayedee, who was in court when the verdict was delivered, faced 19 charges including the murder of civilians, collaborating with the Pakistani army to kill and torture unarmed people, torching homes and carrying out atrocities against the Hindu community, according to a court document detailing the indictment. Eight charges were proved beyond reasonable doubt, prosecutors said.
This was tribunal’s first verdict since thousands of protesters began occupying Shahbag square in central Dhaka at the beginning of last month.
“It’s a victory day, it’s a day of joy. Through this verdict, the nation is seeing the resurgence of liberation war spirits,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told reporters at the tribunal premises in Dhaka yesterday amid heightened security.
Sayedee was sentenced to death on two specific charges of killing unarmed people in the southern district of Pirojpur, Alam said.
The judges -- led by Justice A.T.M. Fazle Kabir -- said in their summary of the verdict that international law imposed no statute of limitations on war crimes.
Demonstrators led by Imran Sarkar, convener of a group known as the Bloggers and Online Activists Network, called for the death penalty for Sayedee as they poured into the capital’s financial district of Motijheel Feb. 27.
“We won’t give up the fight until we get justice,” Sarkar said in a statement to the media. The protesters later relocated to Shahbag, the rallying point for anti-Jamaat activists.
At the end of British colonial rule in 1947, East and West Pakistan were separated by 2,000 kilometers (1,241 miles) of Indian territory. Pakistani troops in 1971 attempted to quell a nationalist uprising in the east that was triggered by the jailing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had led his Awami League to victory in elections. The war ended nine months later with the creation of Bangladesh after Indian forces helped defeat Pakistan’s army.
As crowds swelled in Shahbag, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed Feb. 17 empowered the tribunal to punish any organization whose members carried out crimes during the independence fight. The move sparked reports the government was preparing to ban Jamaat, an extremist group which sided with Pakistan during the war and whose members account for nine of the dozen people facing the tribunal.
Previously judges could only put individuals on trial. In another change, prosecutors can now appeal any of the panel’s verdicts.
In a sign of the widespread anger the alleged mass murders, rapes and abductions four decades ago can still provoke, the Dhaka protest site has drawn bloggers, writers, singers, teachers, students, and the country’s cricket team. Police say the gathering has at times swelled to 100,000 people.
While Hasina, Sheikh Mujibur’s daughter, says the tribunal is about righting an historic wrong, opponents have called the trials politically motivated. Jamaat is an ally of Hasina’s main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and won nearly 5 percent of votes cast in the nation’s parliamentary election in 2008, according to the Bangladesh Election Commission.
The Shahbag protests began after the tribunal Feb. 5 gave a jail term to Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah.
The protesters defend their call for the death penalty for the guilty by saying that people like Mollah would be freed from jail if Jamaat once again has a role in government.
Sayedee was involved in the abduction, confinement and rape of women, including Hindus, in Pirojpur, according to the court document. He also forced some Hindus to convert to Islam, an act the court considers a crime against humanity.