About 80 people have been killed in Bangladesh in the last 40 days in riots over the trial of a handful of alleged war criminals, who are accused of crimes against humanity during the bloody nine-month war of independence in 1971 that cost the country up to three million lives, and saw up to 200,000 women being raped.
The conflict started when a war crimes tribunal passed a death sentence against one of the offenders, a fugitive, following which the workers of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh took to the streets in protest. Jamaat, a political party, had opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, along with the Muslim League. It collaborated with the Pakistani army in allegedly killing freedom fighters.
The fact that some of its members collaborated and participated in the killings, torture and rapes has been well documented. Some of these crimes have come to the surface after four decades. However, the life sentence handed down on the second offender, Abdul Qader Mulla — whose record is among the worst — raised eyebrows among many.
Some started to question the government’s motives while others alleged a secret pact with Jamaat. A group of bloggers then mobilised public support and organised a gathering at the busy Shahbagh Square near Dhaka University — which has now become a symbol of public unity against the convicted war criminals.
However, the latest verdict, a death sentence against Delwar Hussain Sayeedee, which might have cooled the Shahbag Square protesters, has again ignited anger amongst Jamaat supporters.
The latest round of violence has strengthened calls to ban the Jamaat and other extremist political parties, especially those supporting terrorism. While it is important for the Bangladesh government to carry out fair trials and ensure justice, it also has a responsibility to ensure peace and stability.
Bangladesh, a democracy, also needs to decide if it wants to let extremist forces carry out their agenda on its soil. If not, then the time for the decision is now.