ELIZABETH YUAN, CNN
"For the government to ban Jamaat would mean pushing them against the wall"- Romen Bose, Exclusive Analysis
Since early February tens of thousands of people have occupied an intersection of Bangladesh's capital every day, but unlike Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street, they're not calling for the overthrow of the government or greater economic equality.
The rallies, fueled by social media, are demanding capital punishment for people convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the war of independence from Pakistan more than four decades ago.
Of the 10 indicted by the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court, in Bangladesh last year, seven are top leaders of Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, including former MP Delwar Hossain Sayedee who faces judgment on Thursday.
A tenth person -- Abul Kalam Azad, an expelled Jamaat member who is at large -- was convicted and sentenced in absentia to death by hanging in the tribunal's first verdict in January. The cleric is believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
Jamaat acknowledges having supported a united Pakistan, but the party has been accused of helping Pakistani forces commit atrocities during the nine-month-long 1971 war, in which as many as three million people were killed and hundreds of thousands of women were raped.
The rallies at the Shahbag intersection in Dhaka were sparked on February 5 after Jamaat's assistant secretary general, Abdul Kader Mollah, was sentenced to life in jail for genocide and other atrocities -- a sentence protesters considered too mild for a convicted war criminal.
Jamaat has decried what it calls a smear campaign and questioned why the Awami League had not pressed forward on war crimes trials while in power during the 1970s and 1990s.
As with Cambodia, it has taken some four decades for Bangladesh to address its genocide, and the war crimes process has not been without criticism.
The ruling Awami League, which made the prosecution of war crimes perpetrators a central election plank in 2008, has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for proposing amendments that would enable a court to overturn a life sentence in favor of a death penalty.
"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, HRW's Asia director in a statement this month. The proposed amendments "make a mockery of the trial process," he added.
Significance of protests
The weeks-long Shahbag protests were initiated by bloggers to protest Mollah's sentence and grew to include university students and youth, celebrities like the Bangladesh national cricket team, and a large contingent of women, cutting across economic, religious and ethnic divides, according to six observers. The intersection has since been renamed "Projonmo Chottor" (New Generation Roundabout), with poetry read, music played, and candles burned.
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.
"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 Sahib. "We cannot accept their lifetime imprisonment."
The protests have also included a call for the ban of religious-based political parties and Jamaat in particular, an opinion that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League have endorsed.
But such a scenario "would raise stability risks in Bangladesh," says Romen Bose, deputy head of Asia forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, recently acquired by the political risk consulting firm IHS. "For the government to ban Jamaat would mean pushing them against the wall," with the potential for a guerilla-style insurgency if the party is locked out of politics, he added.
Meanwhile Jamaat's tactic has been to turn criticism of it into criticism of Islam, Bose said.
Jamaat has called the Shahbag participants "anti-Islamic atheists" protected by the government who are deserving of arrests and death sentences for defaming the religion. 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 youth-led non-violent rallies have occurred amid countrywide strikes and counter protests backed by Jamaat and Islamist parties to protest the government's support of "atheists."
As yet, there have been no direct confrontations between Shahbag protesters and Jamaat, Bose said, a scenario he says would be "disastrous."
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 in the coming year.
Meanwhile, the International Press Institute has condemned attacks on at least 18 journalists by Jamaat supporters across the country after last Friday's Juma prayers.
Bose, of Exclusive Analysis, pointed out that some of those journalists may be bloggers, who have been among the organizers of the Shahbag protests.
Photographer and CNN iReporter 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. "I'm not afraid."
First appeared in CNN online, February 28, 2013