Explaining Bangladesh's Month of Massive Street Protests and Violence

The Shabagh protests are bringing Bangladeshis out on to the streets with nooses, their chants calling for accused war criminals to be hanged.

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04 March 2013, 8:00am

The preacher came to life in a packed courthouse. Delwar Hossein Sayedee, one of Bangladesh’s most popular imams, burst into fiery rhetoric, denouncing the “infidels” and his “atheist” accusers. Moments before, the crimson bearded Sayedee was found guilty of eight heinous crimes, enough to merit death by hanging.

This was the latest verdict in Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), which was set up in 2010 to try perpetrators of vicious crimes during the country’s independence struggle in 1971 (that saw Bangladesh split from Pakistan). The ICT has inspired an unprecedented protest movement known as Shabagh (named after the busy intersection where hundreds of thousands have gathered this month) that has polarised this South Asian nation of 160 million people. Sayedee’s sentence unleashed days of bloodshed in the country’s capital Dhaka. It has been one of the deadliest episodes of political violence in a generation.

Sayedee isn’t just a preacher. Like most of the accused at the ICT he is a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the nation’s largest Islamic party. Sayedee is accused of energetically butchering and raping intellectuals and non-Muslims in the summer of ‘71. In one house his comrades are said to have terrorised, they apparently killed everyone they saw and attached the severed head of the chief "infidel" from a ceiling fan.

The February 5th verdict in the case of another Jamaat party member Abdul Qader Mollah AKA “The Butcher of Mirpur”, found him guilty of five out of six charges he faced, earning a sentence of life in jail as opposed to death. This bit of leniency was what fist sparked the Shabagh protests, as secularists converged on a busy downtown intersection to cry foul.

The Shabagh protests are a liberal street festival with a morbid demand. Nooses and chants calling for the accused to be hanged have become shorthand for what defines the nation, the unfinished war of identity for a pluralistic liberal society fused with a sense of patriotic betrayal by inept autocrats and politicians.

Shahidul Haque Mama fought for the nation’s independence and said he witnessed the brutality of Mollah’s crimes first hand. “Rape, looting, too many bodies,” he told me, incandescent with memories of 42-years prior. Mollah “is a butcher, I want to see the last judgment for the criminals!”

Jamaat claim the proceedings are a “political show trial,” concocted by the current government of Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL), who came to power in 2008 on the specific pledge they would attain justice for the collaborators of ’71. The AL is a secularist party whose founder was the independence hero and the country’s first leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), the father of current Prime Minister, Hasina.

The numbers who perished in ’71 are hotly disputed, with revisionists and patriots eager to diminish or swell them as they see fit. It is however safe to say that atrocities occurred and that this memory of that strife sits like an ugly canyon between competing nationalist identities, that of the primacy of its Islamic identity as opposed to country’s Bengali or Bangla one, personified by the liberation heroes of ’71. Militias allied to Pakistani forces targeted intellectuals and religious minorities with particular ferocity.

“We didn’t see our martyrs die so that these guys could walk free and stay in politics,” says Ahmed, a protester at Shabagh.

Crucial to understanding the protests is the political roller coaster of post-independence Bangladesh. In 1973 Mujib pardoned many of the collaborators as a way to repatriate Bangladeshis stranded in Pakistan proper (mainly soldiers). Within two years Mujib was killed by an assassin’s bullet. For the next 15 years, conservative military strongmen would run the nation (usually backed by the West).

The dictators found the strictures of conservative Islam compelling and would over time reconcile the wrongdoers of ’71, such as those now on trial, with a political Islam within the nation’s politics and constitution. This included the return of Ghulam Azam, from Pakistan in ’78. Over the last 40 years the diversity of society has diminished as minority groups flee bouts of persecution by hard line Islamists.

"Bangladesh's military leaders – Zia and Ershad – each needed to create political support for their unelected regimes. One strategy for attempting to do this was to try to build bridges with the Islamists. For example, in 1977 Zia amended the Constitution to replace secularism with a commitment to Islamic values, and Ershad amended it again to make Islam the state religion in 1988. Both changes helped to further empower the Islamists, which had reappeared following Mujib's demise in 1975," says Professor David Lewis, author of Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society.

The Shabagh crowds reached into the hundreds of thousands for many days in February. Protesters have been there, in varying degrees of passion, non-stop since February 5th. Chanting and singing with bursts of art and expression, cross-sections of society have converged in patriotic celebration and vengeful indignation. Demands of the protests have expanded to include the banning of Jamaat, which the government has said it will do, as well as a boycott of Jamaat businesses.

Initially crowds were mobilised via the internet, particularly by a group of bloggers who expressed a lack of religious faith. One such blogger was Rajib Haide. On the evening of February 15th, as Rajib was heading home from Shabagh, assailants hacked him to death with machetes. The police have detained a group of students, who they say are members of Jamaat’s feared student wing, known as Shibir (all major parties have student wings, which often behave and function like the Nazi’s brown shirts).

For Jamaat and its supporters, a lack of faith has become a branding iron with which to mark all the protesters at Shabagh. A predictable tactic. In reality, most of the protesters are practicing Muslims. The Imam Sayedee, after hearing his verdict, echoed the Jamaat party line, castagating the “infidels and atheists” at Shabagh.

He wagged his finger, a Quran by his side, bright crimson beard and eyeliner, inducing the packed courtroom to surge towards him in rage.

Sayedee also complained of political interference in the ICT. Non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have joined Islamist voices in concurrence.

Hours of recorded skype conversations of a judge and hundreds of his emails were leaked. These suggested that the government was leaning on the judges, among other legal sins. The principal judge involved quit as a result in December. He was the only man who had presided over the entire case.

Conversely many at Shabagh share the lack of faith with the justice system; they view the death sentence as the only certain way that retribution will be achieved, and society rid of perpetrators, especially if Jamaat helps to form a future government. Jamaat has been a powerful player as a coalition partner despite their relatively small vote base. They receive considerable support from outside the country, enabling them to punch above their weight, as leaked US diplomatic cables revealed:

“…at least one JIB (Jamaat) representative has mentioned the possibility of JIB soliciting moral and other support from Saudi Arabia… JIB representatives also indicate the party is likely to make an effort to ensure regional stake-holders such as Pakistan (the origin of a significant number of war crimes suspects) play a role as the process moves forward.”

The ICT has also taken its toll on witnesses. A defence witness named Sukho Ranjan Bali disappeared as he approached court. He had been recruited by the defence, having previously been a prosecution witness. His testimony would have “had a devastating effect” on the trial said defence lawyer, Abdur Razzaq. The court has allowed witnesses to give written statements and not appear in court. Bali was due to testify that the prosecution made his up. He has not been heard from since October.

More recently a prosecution witness’ body appeared at Chittagong hospital. Syed Wahidul Alam Junu had testified against Salauddin Qader Chowdhury on February 12th. Chowdhury typifies the kleptocracy many associate with Bangladeshi politics. He's a member of parliament from a southern district that has been ruled by his family for generations (he is a member of Jamaat coalition partner and main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party). Junu’s family allege that he received numerous death threats warning him not to testify.

Sayedee's supporters and members of Jamaat’s student wing, Shibir, took to the streets in violent protest after the court announced his verdict on February 28th almost as soon as celebrations began on the courthouse steps and at Shabagh.

They clashed with so-called infidels and attacked Hindu temples and communities. Police confronted the protesters with force, as protests lasted for days, killing as many as 40 in a single day. Violence continues as of this writing, with the army being deployed in the northern town of Bogra and days of strikes grinding the capital to a halt.

Bangladesh now sits at a dangerous impasse with elections fast approaching. The scale of political unrest is in part a reflection of a deep lack of faith in the institutions of state and law. Ironically this lack of faith exists partly because of the impunity that the powerful, such as those now on trial, have enjoyed. To attain justice or vanquish political enemies in courthouses might not suffice. 

Photos by Joseph Allchin

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