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Seeking war crimes justice, Bangladesh protesters fight 'anti-Islam' label

By Elizabeth Yuan, Saeed Ahmed and Farid Ahmed, CNN
updated 8:56 PM EST, Thu February 28, 2013
Social activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have fueled rallies in February demanding death sentences for war criminals.
Social activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have fueled rallies in February demanding death sentences for war criminals.
  • NEW: Ex-MP Sayedee is sentenced to hang for mass killings and rape
  • Seven of 10 indicted by the war crimes tribunal are Jamaat-e-Islam leaders
  • As many as 3 million people were killed and hundreds of thousands raped in the war
  • Jamaat-e-Islam decries what it calls a smear campaign

Dhaka, Bangladesh (CNN) -- Every day since early February, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have massed at an intersection in Bangladesh's bustling capital city. But unlike the Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street movements, they're not calling for the overthrow of the government or greater economic equality.

The rallies, led by youths and fueled by social media, are demanding the death penalty for those who took part in war crimes during Bangladesh's bloody battle for independence from Pakistan more than four decades ago.

And in the fourth most populous Muslim country in the world, the peaceful movement is also trying to achieve something remarkable: a ban on extreme fundamentalist parties.

"It's a revolution. A social revolution," says Dhaka resident Shaon Tanvir. "They have been using social media very effectively. A couple of hours' notice, and hundreds and thousands of people turn up."

Parents bring their children, their faces painted red and green in the colors of the Bangladeshi flag. Housewives pack lunches for the demonstrators. Passing motorists honk their horns and flash thumbs-up signs.

"In Bangladesh, we've seen power struggle among the political parties over the years. Now we see the strength of the young generation without any party affiliation," said a college teacher, Saiful Islam, who joined the sit-in.

"They are not violent, but no parties can defy them or ignore the demands."

The genesis

During the nine-month war in 1971, between 1 million and 3 million people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of women were raped. Many of the atrocities were committed by Pakistani forces and their civilian collaborators.

Bangladeshi police gather near a car set ablaze by Islamist protesters during clashes on Monday, May 6. Police broke up a protest of tens of thousands of religious hardliners and shut down an Islamist television station Monday after battles in the streets of Dhaka. Demonstrations calling for religious laws, led by the ultraconservative group Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), have been building since February. Bangladeshi police gather near a car set ablaze by Islamist protesters during clashes on Monday, May 6. Police broke up a protest of tens of thousands of religious hardliners and shut down an Islamist television station Monday after battles in the streets of Dhaka. Demonstrations calling for religious laws, led by the ultraconservative group Hefazat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), have been building since February.
Deadly Islamist riots rock Bangladesh
Gallery: Deadly riots rock Bangladesh Gallery: Deadly riots rock Bangladesh

"When the fighting was over, there were vultures almost too fat to fly, and Bangladesh was a land with few of the sinews of nationhood left unsevered," the National Geographic said in a piece soon after the birth of the country.

In 2010, Bangladesh set up a court that it called the International Crimes Tribunal to finally bring to justice those it accused in the massacre.

So far, the court has indicted 10 people. Seven of them are top leaders of Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

Jamaat acknowledges that it opposed Bangladesh's struggle for independence. But it has decried what it calls a smear campaign. It has also questioned why the ruling party, the Awami League, is only now pressing forward on war crimes trials when it didn't do so while in power during the 1970s and 1990s.

In January, the court tried its first case and convicted Abul Kalam Azad, an expelled Jamaat member who is at large. Azad was sentenced in absentia to death by hanging. The cleric is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

Another Jamaat leader, former lawmaker Delwar Hossain Sayedee, was found guilty Thursday on eight counts -- out of 20 charges -- involving killings and rapes, and was sentenced to hang.

Sayedee, a two-time member of Bangladesh's parliament, responded that the court "has done injustice" to him. His lawyer, Abdur Razzak, said the sentence would be appealed.

Angry Jamaat supporters clashed with police in demonstrations against the verdict nationwide, while the party blasted the trial as "politically motivated." But Bangladesh law minister Shafique Ahmed said the death sentence reflected people's expectations.

"It's established the rule of law, and the trial process is being continued maintaining international standards," the law minister said.

Widespread demonstrations also followed the life sentence handed down to Abdul Quader Mollah, Jamaat's assistant secretary general, on February 5. That's when the rallies at Dhaka's Shahbag intersection began, as those who thought the sentence was too mild gathered at the intersection to protest.

"For four decades, we have remained quiet with the hope that one day these war criminals will be sentenced to death," said Shoaib, a student of Dhaka University, in a CNN iReport by Aminul Islam Sajib. "We cannot accept their lifetime imprisonment."

Protests erupt in Bangladesh after war-crimes verdict

Since February 5, tens of thousands have thronged the Dhaka intersection to demand the death penalty for convicted war criminals.
Since February 5, tens of thousands have thronged the Dhaka intersection to demand the death penalty for convicted war criminals.

The scene

The demonstrations started with a handful of bloggers and college students who took to Facebook and Twitter to ask others to join in the outrage.

Soon the masses swelled -- and cut across economic, religious and ethnic divides.

Fathers stop by with young sons in tow. Office workers show their support at the end of the workday. Rickshaw pullers donate part of their day's earnings for supplies. Even the Bangladesh national cricket team has made an appearance.

The protesters have renamed the intersection "Projonmo Chottor" (New Generation Circle).

Banners are everywhere.

"Humanity dies when war criminals live," reads one. "Justice delayed for 42 years. We can't take it anymore," laments another.

Throughout the day, demonstrators rally with their fists punching the air, hangman's nooses around their necks and deafening chants of "Fashi chai" ("We want them hanged").

On a makeshift stage, the demonstrators read poetry or play music. Elsewhere, they bang on plastic buckets or take turns sweeping up the debris and trash.

"It's not a protest led by any political party," a young protester Asif Islam said. "We're our leaders. We're disciplined by ourselves."

The Bangladeshi community abroad have rallied to the cause as well, particularly students who have held mini-rallies to spotlight attention to Shahbag at dozens of college campuses in the United States.

"Knowing that, 'Yes, we are supported worldwide, and no, we're not alone' gives a lot of inspiration and motivation to keep the movement running, I believe," said Rafiul Alam, a student at University of Texas at Arlington.

Back at Shahbag, silence comes only when night falls.

The demonstrators sleep while thousands of flickering candles cast around them a rapturous glow.

The significance

Supporters of Islamic political parties shout slogans inside a madrasa during a nationwide strike in Dhaka on February 2.
Supporters of Islamic political parties shout slogans inside a madrasa during a nationwide strike in Dhaka on February 2.

In a piece published on The Asia Foundation's website, Awrup Sanyal, a Dhaka-based writer, wrote that the Shahbag movement has "opened up space for discussions on subjects that until now were considered taboo or avoided altogether."

Such subjects include, according to Sanyal, fundamentalism in politics; secularism; unaccountability; inclusiveness irrespective of religion and ethnicity; contradictory historical narratives; boycotting of businesses; and the spirit of the 1971 independence movement.

Writer Saad Z. Hossain says Shahbag is a "visceral rejection of fundamentalism."

"Shahbagh is the silent majority," he wrote, "rising up against the use of religion to bully."

The criticism

While the demonstrators have declared Shahbag a politics-free zone and turned away politicians who wanted to use the stage to deliver a speech, the gathering nonetheless has the approval of the ruling party.

As with Cambodia, it has taken some four decades for Bangladesh to address its genocide. The Awami League made the prosecution of war crimes perpetrators a central election plank in its 2008 campaign.

"It is a unique incident. It is a unique uprising that has spread to the villages," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said of the Shahbag gathering. "The new generation, including the children, has woken up irrespective of their political views."

As the protests grew, the parliament proposed an amendment to the law empowering the International Crimes Tribunal. Under the proposed amendment, the government can appeal any tribunal verdict, and Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said it plans to do so in Mollah's case.

Protesters hailed the proposal, but human rights groups weren't pleased.

"A government supposedly guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to overrule court decisions when it doesn't like them," said Brad Adams, the Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The amendments "make a mockery of the trial process," he added.

The Awami League has also endorsed the protesters' call for a ban on religious-based political parties -- and Jamaat in particular.

"We're examining all possible ways of doing it," the law minister said.

It's not a surprise, analysts say. Sidelining Jamaat, an opposition party with sizable influence, would play to Awami League's advantage politically.

The ban

But such a scenario "would raise stability risks in Bangladesh," says Romen Bose, deputy head of Asia forecasting at IHS' Exclusive Analysis, an outfit that assesses political and violent risks worldwide.

"For the government to ban Jamaat would mean pushing them against the wall," with the potential for a guerrilla-style insurgency if the party is locked out of politics, he said.

Meanwhile, Jamaat's tactic has been to turn criticism of it into criticism of Islam.

Jamaat has called the Shahbag participants "anti-Islamic atheists" who deserve death for defaming the religion but who are protected by the government.

The party also accuses the protesters of seeking to overturn an independent judiciary.

On February 15, a blogger and one of the Shahbag organizers, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was hacked to death hours after he called for a boycott of Jamaat-affiliated institutions and businesses.

An atheist, he is alleged to have been behind anti-Islamic posts, which protesters contend are part of a cyber war to malign the movement.

The backlash

So far, the Shahbag protesters and Jamaat supporters have not had direct confrontations -- a scenario Bose says would be "disastrous."

But increasingly, the Islamists are letting their presence known with larger and larger rallies and strikes first in cities outside Dhaka and then in the capital city.

On Friday, at least 18 journalists were attacked by Jamaat supporters after Friday prayers.

And on Sunday, several thousand Islamists took to the streets in Manikganj after an imam of a local mosque urged them to rally against bloggers he accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Police fired nearly 300 gunshots and 50 tear-gas shells to disperse the mob.

Other Jamaat-led protests also turned violent. In all, 24 people have died so far, and Jamaat has called for a general strike Thursday.

To be fair, both sides are trying to muffle each other.

On Tuesday, Shahbag activists marched to the home ministry with a memorandum demanding the arrest of the editor of the newspaper Amar Desh for instigating violence with reports that their movement was anti-Islam.

The editor, Mahmudur Rahman, who is being sued for such charges, has been defended in the past by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, citing "ongoing judicial harassment."

Amar Desh, according to the group, reports on corruption cases in Bangladesh.

More recently, the group expressed concerns about a restricting environment for human rights activities ahead of elections next year.

The future

Photographer Shah Sazzad Hossein has gone to Shahbag about a dozen times to get a sense of who the demonstrators are and what keeps bringing them back.

He says he sees no signs of the rallies abating, with people wanting nothing less than the death penalty for war criminals.

And yet he cannot shake a feeling of foreboding.

"I think there will be violence in the coming months," he said.

Then he added, echoing the sentiment of the masses assembled in Shahbag, "I'm not afraid."

CNN's Farid Ahmed reported from Dhaka; Elizabeth Yuan reported and wrote from Hong Kong, and Saeed Ahmed from Atlanta. CNN's Christina Zdanowicz and Henry Hanks in Atlanta and Sarah Brown in London also contributed.

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