Saturday, December 21, 2013

Noose tightens on Bangladesh opposition

Protesters burn effigy of cricketer turned politician Imran Khan in front of Pakistan embassy in Bangladesh capital
After the execution of a senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader, the religious party faces an uncertain future.

SALEEM SAMAD

Hours after Bangladesh executed Abdul Quader Molla, a top opposition leader, for his role in the 1971 civil war that culminated into Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan activists from his party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), staged riots. Violence has continued in the country following the December 12 hanging, leading to dozens of deaths.

More than 100 JeI activists have been detained in a nation-wide crackdown.

Molla's execution has lead to heated debates about the role of political Islam in the country and the future for religious opposition parties.

"Bangladesh will be the first country to bury 'political Islam' which wrecked the traditional secular fabric of the society since independence in 1971," explains professor Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah, who teaches Public Affairs in the Dhaka University.

'Surge and Decline'
JeI had opposed the break-up of Pakistan and fought alongside Pakistan's military against pro-Independence forces. It was banned from politics upon the formation of Bangladesh.

But a military coup in 1975 lifted the ban on JeI. During the 1980s, the religious party joined a multi-party coalition and later supported the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). In October 2001, it emerged as the country's third largest party, securing 17 seats in the 300-member parliament. Both the JeI and BNP led by Begum Khaleda Zia replaced the Awami League (AL), which had been in power since 1996.

In 2008, AL led by Sheikh Hasina came back to power even as JeI's popularity waned when it won a mere 5 seats in national elections. And in 2010 AL began war crimes trials for events surrounding the independence struggle under Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT).

Molla became the first person convicted by the tribunal. He was initially sentenced to life in prison in February. Calling a life sentence as too lenient, thousands across Bangladesh demanded he be hanged. And in September, the Supreme Court overturned life in prison and replaced it with a death sentence.

With his hanging, some observers believe JeI's power also has been executed.

While war veterans from 1971 and thousands of pro-independence youths rejoiced after the hanging, the JeI's acting head Moqbul Ahmed warned "people would [want] revenge" on the party's website, which triggered a massive crackdown against JeI activists.

Ahmed has called on the international community to raise its voice against the "repression on the opposition".

"Since coming to power the government (of Awami League) has practiced unbridled corruption, nepotism and even torture upon members of the opposition. They are now making a last-ditch attempt to stay in power indefinitely by amending the constitution and destroying the state apparatus. They have abolished the caretaker system of government and have enacted a new system to hold elections under their own party government," the Jamaat chief said, something which its political partner BNP also backs.

Both the parties have in recent months launched blockades; often resulting in violence and killings, to press for their demands but the ruling AL so far seems unwilling to budge.

JeI says crackdown on its members and the hanging of its leader was "politically motivated".

But others feel the executions were fair, as Jamaat's paramilitary Al Badr had committed "heinous war abuses" for which they need to be punished.

According to M A Hasan, of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, an independent body investigating the 1971 massacres: "Al Badr had been engaged in forced abduction and execution of Bangla-speaking pro-independence nationalists and secularists to brutally muzzle the voices for freedom."

The war historian's documents claim that "local henchmen" allied with Pakistani soldiers were involved in "killing at least 3 million and sexual abusing 400,000 women during the nine months civil war."

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UN rights experts have continued their criticism of the war crimes tribunals and the laws under which they operate.

However, Bangladeshi authorities have always argued that they met national standards and that justice is needed for war crimes committed during the bloody war of independence from Pakistan.

'Partner's silence'
The BNP, Jel's erstwhile political ally, has been conspicuously silent since Molla's execution.

It is currently pre-occupied in talks with the ruling AL over how to break the political deadlock.

"It seems BNP is more desperate for a political solution than stalemate and may have deliberately overlooked JeI's concerns," Ahmed explains.

The BNP has been holding series of blockades of the country's transport system since December in protest of holding what it says is "farcical" election in January.

A court has already declared the registration of the JeI as "illegal" to contest national polls.

" [The] BNP's strategic election partner has become a dead horse and a political burden for the opposition," says Nzmul Ahsan Kalimullah, a professor of public administration at the University of Dhaka. "It is time for BNP to shred JeI, which will bring an end to political Islam which has haunted the nation apparently for 30 years."

'Uncertain future'
JeI may not be a dead horse but even some party insiders believe it is facing a worst crisis in its 40-year-long political history in Bangladesh.

"It would be a Herculean task to survive against the ruling party which has an overwhelming majority in the government," says explains Salauddin Babar, executive editor of the pro-JeI newspaper, Dainik Naya Diganta, and a senior JeI member. "It will be an uphill battle to survive the current political crisis JeI faces."

Babar believes that the crackdown weakend the party's chain of command and Jel could crack under the pressure.

"The political future of the party has been challenged after a sustained crackdown on the leadership. Jamaat's future is uncertain," he says.

First published in Al Jazeera news portal, December 21, 2013

Saleem Samad is an award winning Bangladesh based investigative journalist and an Ashoka Fellow. Presently news correspondent for press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). He is recipient of Hellman-Hammett Grants award by New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005.