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Monday, November 04, 2013

Bangladesh: Clash of Titans


With less than three months left before the General Elections in Bangladesh (the term of the present Parliament expires on January 24, 2014) political tensions in the country are approaching a knife-edge, with mass mobilisation and violence escalating continuously, and the major political formations in the country increasingly polarized. The Opposition parties led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have started a movement demanding a non-party Caretaker Government (CG) to oversee the next polls. A three-day countrywide shut down by the BNP between October 27-29, 2013, saw violent clashes between mobs and Police, and at least 10 persons were killed.

Earlier, on October 19, 2013, with the crescendo of street demonstrations and violence soaring, Bangladeshi authorities had banned rallies and street protests in capital Dhaka for an indefinite period. Police and elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel were deployed around the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre (BICC) and other strategic locations of the city to thwart possible street protests by BNP cadres. On October 20, 2013, the Opposition parties staged demonstrations across the country as part of their protest against the indefinite ban on public gatherings in Dhaka city. At least 20 people were injured in a clash between the activists of ruling Awami League (AL) and opposition BNP at Ku Koramara village in Bagerhat District on that day. Later, on October 25, 2013, seven people were killed in violence that broke out between BNP activists, AL activists and law enforcers in different places across the country. Several hundred people were also injured.

Meanwhile, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had arrested four leaders and cadres of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) from Ashulia, an outskirt of Dhaka city, on October 7, 2013, and recovered one foreign-made pistol, 32 bullets, and 1,135 rounds of SMG (Sub-Machine Gun) bullets, five detonators, one kilogram of high-powered explosive and other blasting equipment from their possession. Separately, RAB arrested three leaders of Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Islamist extremist outfit, at Rahanpur Bazar under Gomastapur sub-District of Chapainawabganj District on October 8, 2013, and recovered two computer central processing units (CPUs) and monitors, 26 CDs, and books propagating extremism. Indeed, in the wake of a bomb blast at Hefajat-e-Islam (HeI) Nayeb-e-Ameer (Deputy Chief) Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury's madrasa (religious seminary) in Chittagong on October 7, 2013, top officials of the Home Ministry and Police disclosed, on October 8, 2013, that banned militant outfits were planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the country.

In an exceptional gesture on October 26, 2013, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had phoned her archrival Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP, and had a 37-minute conversation inviting the BNP chairperson to the Gono Bhaban (People's House), the official residence of the Prime Minister, to talk about the impending parliamentary elections. Khaleda, however, rejected the invitation, demanding, instead, "If you first agree in principle on holding the next general election under a non-partisan polls-time Government, then we will call off all our agitation including the 60-hour hartal. And we will sit to discuss how to form the polls-time Government."

With the initiative to evolve a consensual solution in tatters, BNP, in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), and other radical groups, unleashed a wave violence in the streets across the country. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), as many as 194 people, including 102 civilians, 83 JeI-ICS cadres, and nine Security Force (SF) personnel 631 have been killed since the delivery of the first verdict in the War Crimes Trial on January 21, 2013 (Data till November 3, 2013).

Significantly, it appears that the 18-Party opposition alliance, till now headed by the BNP, is progressively being hijacked by the JeI, with its focus shifting to opposition to the War Crimes Trials and obstruction of the execution of its verdicts, rather than any dispute over the impending Parliamentary elections. Indeed, at a rally held by the alliance at the historic Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka, JeI cadres scuffled with BNP activists in their attempts to occupy the stage and the first seats. With ugly clashes between JeI-ICS cadres and BNP activists at the venue, JeI cadres cheered only when their leaders were making speeches. The Daily Star reported that the ICS activists had been ordered by the party high command to rush to the venue and take control of the rally. This was repeated in other places in Bangladesh, where simultaneous 'joint' rallies were being held.

Even as her party was upstaged, Khaleeda Zia intensified her attack against the Sheikh Hasina Government, describing it as 'totally illegitimate' and 'unconstitutional'.

Significantly, in a public opinion survey conducted by The Daily Star and Asia Foundation, with 1,400 respondents across 14 Districts during the second and third weeks of September 2013, the AL-led Government received significant praise from voters on various issues, including agricultural policy and performance, power supply, delivery of public service and law and order. Nevertheless, a majority of 55 per cent of the respondents declared that they would vote for the BNP, with just 28 per cent saying they would vote for AL.

Counter-intuitively, at the same time, public opinion appears to be building up against radicalization and public demonstrations to this effect have been prominent. Thus, after the Opposition of October 28, children of the freedom fighters of 1971, under the banner of Amra Muktijoddhar Shontan (AMS, We Are Children of Freedom Fighters) washed the alter of the a liberation war memorial site at the Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka with their blood, declaring it had been 'desecrated' by Khaleeda Zia, who made a speech demanding the release of convicted war criminals. In a symbolic gesture, AMS leaders donated blood drawn by a doctor, which was then dissolved in water, with which the altar was cleansed. Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka is the venue where Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had delivered the historic March 7, 1971 speech. It is also the historic venue where the remnants of the Pakistan Army surrendered to India on December 16, 1971.

Meanwhile, even as polarized political passions intensified, the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2), on November 3, 2013, awarded the death penalty to absconding Al-Badr leaders Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman Khan alias Nayeb Ali and Chowdhury Mueenuddin for their involvement in the 1971 War Crimes. All 11 charges leveled against them by the prosecution were proved. The convicts received the death penalty for abduction and killing of nine Dhaka University teachers, six eminent journalists and three physicians in December 1971. Mueen was the 'operations in charge' and Ashraf was the 'chief executor' of Al-Badr and they directly took part in the killing of intellectuals in Dhaka. On June 24, 2013, Ashraf and Mueen were jointly indicted on 11 counts of crimes against humanity for abducting and killing 18 persons. The trial began on July 15. The two accused were tried in absentia. Mueen lives in London and Ashraf in New York.

Earlier, on October 9, 2013, the ICT-2 had sentenced Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Abdul Alim (83) to 'imprisonment until death'. Alim was the chairman of Joypurhat Municipality during the Liberation War period, and was subsequently a founding member of BNP. He was elected Member of Parliament in 1979, 1996 and 2001. Zia-ur-Rahman made Alim a Cabinet Minister in 1978. Alim was found guilty on nine of the 17 charges brought against him. The four charges on account of which he was sentenced to 'imprisonment until death' included: committing genocide in Karai Kadipur, Chawkpara, Sonapara, Palpara and Munshipara of Jaipurhat District on April 26, 1971; committing genocide at Uttar Hatsahar and Harunja Hat of Khetlal in Jaipurhat District towards the end of May 1971; killing 15 youth at West Amatra in Jaipurhat District on June 14, 1971; and killing three freedom fighters at Khanjanpur Khuthibari in October 1971.

Thus far nine verdicts have been awarded by the International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs) conducting the War Crimes Trials that begin on March 25, 2010. While seven verdicts had been announced earlier, the Abdul Alim verdict is the second against a BNP leader. The first BNP leader to be convicted, on October 1, 2013, was Salauddin Quader Chowdhury.

In another trial on the same day, ICT-1 indicted the vice-president of the Nagarkanda unit (Faridpur District) of BNP, M.A. Zahid Hossain Khokon (70) alias Khokon Razakar on 11 charges, including genocide, torture, abduction and confinement during the Liberation War of 1971. According to the charges leveled against him, Khokon, at that time a local leader of the Razakars (Volunteers), an auxiliary force of the Pakistani Army, in Faridpur District, was involved in at least 13 incidents of war crimes that resulted in the death of more than 50 people, serious injuries to another eight and the rape of two women. Khokon was also proven to be involved in the forced conversion of Hindus, the torching of numerous houses and two temples, and the deportation of seven people. Khokon became the 14th high profile leader in Bangladesh to be indicted for War Crimes. Earlier, 13 leaders, including 11 of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and two of the BNP, had been indicted for War Crimes.

Further, on October 6, 2013, the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) passed the 'Voters' List (Second Amendment) Bill, 2013', with a provision of removing the names of those who were awarded punishment for War Crimes. The amended section of the law stated that the names of those who were awarded punishment under the Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunal) Order 1972 or under the International Crimes Tribunal or mentally retarded person declared by any court or a person not citizen of Bangladesh, would be removed from the voters' list. Law Minister Shafique Ahmed tabled the Voters' List (Second Amendment) Bill, 2013, in Parliament and it was passed by voice vote.

Significantly, on October 8, 2013, accusing the BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia of siding with war criminals, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned that if the BNP came to power again, the country would experience a reign of terror and corruption, declaring, "The BNP resorts to terrorism, looting and corruption when it comes to power, while the AL brings peace and carries out massive development." Further, she added, "I believe that we will be able to complete the trial of those who committed crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971. The BNP cannot save them." While addressing her party's grassroots leaders at her residence in Dhaka city on October 9, 2013, Prime Minister Hasina articulated the apprehension that pro-liberation forces would be wiped out and a dangerous situation would prevail in the country if the "BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami-Hefajat-e-Islam" combine came to power through the next parliamentary election.

Indeed, the achievements of the Sheikh Hasina Government in its counter-terrorism and de-radicalization programmes, as well as on the developmental front, have been extraordinary. Nevertheless, the political uncertainties persist, and her performance does not appear to have been translated into a consolidated electoral advantage. The current mass mobilisation on the War Crimes issue and the arrangements for the coming elections certainly have the potential to undermine the Hasina Government's gains, even as subversive and extremist Islamist formations retain significant potential to stage a dangerous and disruptive revival.

First appeared in SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEWWeekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 18, November 4, 2013

S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management, India

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