A protest outside the Pakistani High Commission on the 18th of December
An ambulance carrying a corpse is a strange thing to cheer. But among the young people carrying flaming torches and national flags at the gate of Dhaka Central Jail on the 12th of December, there was noisy jubilation rather than hushed reverence. The ambulance bore the body of Quader Mollah, former assistant secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s popular Islamic fundamentalist party. The state had just hung Mollah for crimes he committed in the country’s liberation war.
For the revellers, the punishment was a long time coming. The 1971 conflict, which won Bangladesh independence from Pakistani rule, was short but extraordinarily traumatic. There was an attempt to right perceived wrongs in 1973, when Bangladeshi law authorised a war crimes tribunal – but the 1975 assassination of Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, stopped prosecutions in their tracks. Finally, in 2008, the country elected his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, on the promise that she’d reactivate the tribunal.
One wonders what her dad would think of the scenes in the country now. In 2012, Hasina indicted over a dozen men at Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). Since then, the court has dominated the nation’s attention. But rather than generating a best-selling book, a la Argentine’s post-Dirty War document Nunca Mas, or gathering confessions from killers, as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission did, the ICT is mostly bringing out the worst in Bangladesh.
While cheering a dead body is obviously more macabre than Mandela, the scene was rather unsurprising, too. For the protesters gathered outside the hanging prison, Mollah’s death fulfilled a demand the government had been promising them for months.
Mollah, nicknamed “the Butcher of Mirpur”, was charged with seven crimes. On the 5th of February, the ICT found him guilty of five charges, including the murder of 344 people and the rape of an 11-year-old. He received a life sentence. The trial was criticised internationally for judicial improprieties and for using flimsy evidence to impose a stiff penalty. Inside the country, however, massive protests demanded a heavier penalty.
After enduring decades of severe corruption, many Bangladeshis believed backroom deals would reverse the sentence and allow Mollah to go free. Mollah himself may have believed this: he flashed a “victory” sign to TV cameras upon leaving his sentencing. Enraged, Bangladeshis flooded Dhaka’s Shahbag Square to chant “fashi chai” (Bangla for “we want hangings”). The logic was simple: death is the only punishment that no political deal can reverse. Up to 200,000 attended the month of daily protests.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina “agreed to help us”, says movement activist Zahidul Islam Sajib, 25. Eager to garner the support of protesters for their upcoming election campaign, Hasina's ruling party revised ICT rules so that Mollah’s sentence could be changed to execution. On the 17th of September, the court imposed the death sentence. On the 12th of December, in spite of objections from the EU, UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Mollah was hanged.
Ruhel Ahmed, a 62-year-old automotive engineer and former combatant in the Liberation War, was present at Shahbag by day two of February’s protests. He counts the execution as a victory. “We used to have a saying,” he says of freedom fighters. “If you kill more than 100 [Bangladeshis], we will hang you. And he did – and we did.”
Former freedom fighter Shahidul Haque, who goes by “Mama” (a Bangla word for “uncle”), feels the same way. “[Mollah] was the root of all evil,” he says. “He was the soldier of Pakistan... Every war criminal has to be punished.” Sajib, a protest organiser, calls Mollah “a fascist like Hitler” and says the activism is “mostly a spontaneous movement” driven by “emotions in our minds”.
The aftermath of a hartal in Motijheel – an area of Dhaka hit hard by the strikes
But the Shahbag movement’s victories have largely been Pyrrhic. Despite protests in February, Mollah’s conservative Jamaat-e-Islami party (often just referred to simply as Jamaat) and their allies in opposition dominated Bangladesh for much of the year. They mounted a constant series of general strikes (known as hartals locally), calling them in response to ICT indictments in 2012 and verdicts in 2013. Unlike the Shahbag movement, which mostly confined itself to chanting about violence, opposition members committed bombings and murders. Nationwide shutdowns were frequent, and over 200 people have died.
This is part of the reason the Shahbag movement sought more than the death penalty. Bangladesh Student Union activist Lucky Akter, 22, led “fashi chai” chanting for days this February. Reached by phone, she called Mollah’s death “a victory, you could say”. But she warned, “Our prime demand is to ban Jamaat, so we continue our movement.”
Neither mentions that Jamaat already is banned – Bangladesh’s Supreme Court cancelled the party’s registration on the 1st of August, in response to public pressure. Nor do they mention that the ICT indicted most of the upper echelon of Jamaat to the exclusion of all other possible war criminals – which is pretty convenient in an election year – or that Bangladeshi police and military have carried out extrajudicial killings against opposition members – human rights violations that the government refuses to stop.
Nor do they mention that violent hartals have not been quelled by the banning, murders, or hanging. Rather, strikes have become so frequent that Bangladesh’s GDP growth has fallen below 5 percent for the first time in years. Mollah’s death has set off a particularly bad run: Jamaat and its allies announced hartals for 19 of the 25 days between the 26th of November and the 20th of December. In the same period, 100 people have died, according to counts from Human Rights Watch and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). “The deterioration has reached a tipping point,” an AHRC report asserts, referring to “the daily blood-bath taking place in Bangladesh”.
In other words, banning the Bangladeshi opposition and expecting it to disappear is like banning drugs and expecting that no one will get high any more. It’s probably not going to work.
Even more surprising is how little the victories have benefited the Shahbag activists. Momentary jubilance aside, the movement found itself back on the front lines within days of Mollah’s hanging. The 18th of December protests were a reaction to a resolution from Pakistan’s National Assembly, which chided Bangladesh for hanging Mollah over his “loyalty to Pakistan”. Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, expressed sympathy for “innocent” Mollah.
Amid 500 protesters outside Dhaka’s Pakistani Embassy, Ahmed explained the circumstances offered little joy. “This [war] is a score Pakistan wants to settle with us. We fear being attacked again.”
Whatever Pakistan’s intentions, the ruling party in Bangladesh remains singularly focused on winning the election slated for the 5th of January. What happens after that is anyone’s guess – but for now, keeping the Shahbag movement onside is vital for Sheikh Hasina’s re-election. On the 17th of December, government minister Hasanul Huq Inu invited the High Commissioner of Pakistan to a meeting. On a day he could have spent quelling nationwide violence and planning the country’s as yet undefined post-election future – or even averting the chaos of another nine planned executions – the local media headlines of their meeting read: "Pakistan asked to shut up”.
Follow Sophia on Twitter: @msophianewman