Bangladesh: Tensions Rise Over Islamists' Trial

4 MINS READMar 1, 2013 | 18:01 GMT
Bangladesh: Tensions Rise Over Islamists' Trial
Bangladeshi police officials fire rubber bullets and tear gas shells towards demonstrators during a clash with Jamaat-e-Islami activists in Rajshahi on March 1
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Clashes between Bangladeshi security forces and Islamist activists over the trial of the leadership of the country's largest Islamist movement, Jamaat-e-Islami, have escalated significantly. The movement's leaders face trial for their roles in the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in the 1971 civil war that culminated in Pakistan's eastern wing seceding and becoming the independent state of Bangladesh. More than 50 people have died in violence triggered by the Feb. 5 conviction of senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah, who was sentenced to life in prison for collaborating with Pakistani troops in the killing and rape of ethnic Bengalis during the uprising.

Pressure from hundreds of thousands of protesters anxious to see the Islamist party's leaders brought to justice could destabilize the government. Moreover, actions against Jamaat-e-Islami could push many elements within the party to abandon constitutional politics altogether and move toward jihadism — a development that would have security implications for both Bangladesh and India.

For the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, leader of the ruling Awami League, the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders' trial is a significant way to consolidate its support base within the country. The issue is a very sensitive one for most Bangladeshis, who have long desired that those behind the 1971 carnage be brought to justice. The Awami League (founded by the prime minister's father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is considered the father of the nation and was assassinated by army officers four years after independence) has long sought to go after those citizens — many of whom are affiliated with Jamaat-e-Islami — who sided with Pakistani forces in trying to prevent the country's independence. During the war, Jamaat-e-Islami did not want East Pakistan to secede because it prioritized religious identity over ethnic identity. The movement formed militias called Al-Badr and Al-Shams to fight what it saw as a rebellion by pro-India, anti-Islamic forces.

Until its current term, Hasina's party did not have a mandate in a country with a history of military coups and unstable democracy. For the first time since the founding of the country, the Awami League — leading a 14-party coalition — won a massive majority in the December 2008 elections when it garnered 263 out of 300 seats. With the next elections about a year away, the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders' trial will boost the Awami League's popularity and likely ensure an electoral victory.

The Awami League also sees the Jamaat-e-Islami trial as a means to weaken the ruling party's rival, the right-of-center Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (widow of former army chief and president, Zia-ur-Rahman, who was assassinated by army officers in 1981). The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is a longtime ally of Jamaat-e-Islami, and the two parties have been in electoral alliances and shared power in governments led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

By going after Jamaat-e-Islami, the Awami League hopes to permanently cripple the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In the current political atmosphere, the opposition party is in a dilemma: It cannot easily oppose the government's moves against its Islamist ally without undermining its own support base. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party's plan to counter the government remains unclear.

Although the opposition party is in a tough position, the government is not in a very comfortable spot either, because it might have overplayed its hand. Mollah's life sentence prompted the expected backlash from Jamaat-e-Islami. However, after the sentencing, protests demanding the death sentence for the Islamist party's leaders converged at the Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka (an area since renamed Shahbagh Square, to draw a parallel with Tahrir Square in Cairo). The government would have been satisfied with life sentences for the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders, but the popular unrest led the court trying Jamaat-e-Islami Vice President Delwar Hossain Sayeedi to sentence the Islamist leader to death.

The death sentence has raised the ire of Jamaat-e-Islami and its supporters, which is why the violence has escalated. The verdict has polarized the political landscape, pitting the majority anti-Islamist forces against the significant Islamist minority. Bangladesh has a history of Islamist militancy, and with the country's mainstream Islamist party perceiving an existential threat, many within the party are likely to abandon politics and join radical groups like Hizb al-Tahrir or various jihadist groups, some of which have ties to al Qaeda's transnational network. This would have security implications beyond Bangladesh.  

Given the public sentiment and the severity of the verdicts, a political compromise that could defuse the situation seems unlikely. Moreover, many political forces in the country want to use this opportunity to weaken Islamists in the political arena. The problem with that is, thus far, Jamaat-e-Islami's participation in the political system has kept more radical Islamists in check.

If the government cannot find a balance between the two ideological poles of Bangladeshi society, the stability of the government could come into question. This would have serious implications in a country where the military has stepped in many times when civilian forces have been unable to settle their disputes and govern effectively. If the Awami League cannot contain the unrest, its partners will start abandoning it, and the military could push for another period of technocratic government for some time before new elections can be held. Thus, the trial that seeks to heal wounds from more than 40 years ago appears to be creating fresh ones. 

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