After three verdicts in relatively quick succession (January 21, February 5, February 28), the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Bangladesh seems to have now cooled off. Seven of 10 prominent members of Bangladesh’s main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, remain to be tried for war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence. The ruling on long-time Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam is supposedly expected any day now. But the window of opportunity is closing in on Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and Awami League (AL) party head who seems almost maniacally driven to get all 10 convictions completed before January 2014 elections. (If Hasina’s bitter rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, wins, she is almost certain to call off the tribunal.)
The ICT and the firestorm
It is no secret that the ICT (by no means “International,” despite its name) is deeply politicized…so it is a fair assumption to say that Hasina’s government roughly controls the pace at which the tribunal moves. So why has Hasina/the ICT decided to slow down the process by delaying the remaining verdicts?
Few know for sure. But it the most apparent answer is that the government has been humbled by the tumultuous—and to some degree, expected—disorder the trials have unleashed. On one hand, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis (mostly AL supporters) poured into Shahbag Square, a neighborhood of Dhaka, after Jamaat assistant secretary general Abdul Qader Mollah (AQM) was sentenced to (only) life in prison. The demonstrators, most of which were not alive in 1971, nonetheless came out in droves to demand the death penalty for AQM.
On the other hand, death sentences handed down to Abul Kalam Azad in January and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi in February have incensed Jamaat-e-Islami supporters. Since the Sayeedi ruling in late February, Jamaat has sparked frequent riots, clashing with police as well as their customary scapegoats: minority Hindus. The violence has cost over 100 lives, the deadliest toll in the country, ironically, since the 1971 war itself. Mix in nationwide strikes organized by Jamaat ally and Hasina’s bitter rival (Khaleda Zia, former prime minister and leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP) and the recent uproar over a collapsing garment factory—and now Bangladesh seems more than ever to be on the brink.
In a way, inevitable clashes over a divisive tribunal should have been foreseen. Jamaat supporters (rightly) fear that Hasina’s government is using the ICT as a political tool to decapitate their party’s entire senior leadership before next year’s vote. Jamaat’s constituency, already notorious for violence against Hindus, should not have been expected to accept defeat lightly. The Shahbag protests, on the other hand, were deeply unexpected—and in some ways a victory for Hasina, her decision to try the Jamaat leaders validated by a public keen on seeing justice. But while the youths gathered at Shahbag are largely peaceful, they have contributed to heightened tensions that threaten to fuel even greater mistrust between the AL-led government and the BNP-Jamaat opposition.
Between Scylla and Charybdis
Regardless of what should or should not have been expected, the reality now is crystal clear: the Bangladeshi government is stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. As the public reaction after AQM’s life was spared made clear, the coalescing Shahbag movement will likely settle for nothing less than 10 convictions and 10 death sentences. The protestors got their wish after 13 days of demonstrations as the Bangladeshi parliament agreed to amend the rules to allow prosecutors to appeal the AQM decision. Moreover, it might even take a complete ban on Jamaat-e-Islami to fulfill Shahbag demands.
Of course, such an extreme measure—or even just one more death sentence (which is all but inevitable) among the remaining seven—is certain to fuel greater unrest among Jamaat supporters. With rulings on two high-profile defendants—Ghulam Azam and present Jamaat leader Motiur Rahman Nizami—yet to come, hopes of containing more acts of violence appear extremely optimistic. At the same time, a radical Islamic movement—Hefajat-e-Islam—is emerging, fueled by discontent over the trials. Hundreds of thousands have rallied in favor of the movement, demanding that by May 5 (Sunday) the AL-led government must institute new laws that would in effect, according to critics, amount to a “Talibanization” of the country. The ICT has greatly emboldened proponents of shar’ia and political Islam, with potentially dangerous consequences.
With the ICT process (begun at her own direction) quickly turning sour, Sheikh Hasina now faces the difficulty of extinguishing a wildfire she herself lit. The delayed ruling on Ghulam Azam, the next Jamaat leader to be tried, seems an apparent reflection of the government’s worries about further unrest. Yet with pressure from upcoming elections and Shahbag protesters breathing down her neck, Hasina seems to have no choice but to see the ICT through to its end.