The sentencing of two leaders of the Jamaat-e Islami opposition party (JI) has triggered two different ideological mass protests in Bangladesh. According to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human-rights watchdog, more than one hundred people have died in the past month.
Sixty-seven died after the verdict of death by hanging for Delwar Hossain Sayedi, Bangladesh's most well known cleric, was announced. Police bullets killed many JI supporters for staging political processions in response to the verdict, along with countless others injured across the country. The protests have spread to the Middle East, with its residents demanding that Sayeedi – a prominent scholar whose YouTube videos have garnered thousands of views – be given a fair trial. Shaykh Yusuf al- Qaradawi, an Egyptian scholar has spoken about his concern for Sayeedi and justice in Bangladesh on Egyptian radio.
In early February, Abdul Qader Mollah, JI's assistant secretary-general, was given a life sentence by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) - a domestic court - for crimes connected to the 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan. The court was set up in 2010 to try people suspected of crimes under international law including genocide, torture, rape and crimes against humanity. The rationale behind this was the brutal civil war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands; estimates vary between 300,000 and 3 million, depending on whom one asks. The Jamaat opposed independence from Pakistan and aided the Pakistanis. Many leaders have returned to Bangladesh over the past 40 years and have taken up political positions, which infuriates many citizens.
Unsatisfied by Mollah's verdict, large crowds of enraged men, women, and even children assembled in the Shahbag area of Dhaka demanding death by hanging for Mollah. The Shahbag protestors have also been calling for the banning of Islamic political parties, pledging to boycott many of JI’s institutions, including their hospitals and banks. Shahbag protestors, although not of a specific political party, do have the approval of the ruling party, as evident by the police protection they receive.
Supporters of JI say that the trials were unfair and serve as a political vendetta by the ruling Awami National party (ANP). The main opposition party and Jamaat ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, has accused the government of deliberately carrying out "mass killings".
Muhaimenul Khan, a resident of Reston, VA, concurred. "This is political persecution. Yes, some of the accused are known criminals, but that does not justify by-passing a fair trial or uniform treatment of people across the board. Bangladesh is a democracy, and the country is to be ruled from the parliament and not from the streets. People gathering on the street cannot dictate how the court shall rule," he said.
The Economist in its investigative report on the tribunal wrote: “These concerns are so serious that there is a risk not only of a miscarriage of justice affecting the individual defendants, but also that the wrongs which Bangladesh has already suffered will be aggravated by the flawed process of the tribunal. That would not heal the country’s wounds, but deepen them.”
Over sixty Bangladeshi-American leaders met in Virginia recently to discuss the situation and express their concerns over the deteriorating situation in Bangladesh. Their main concerns revolved around access to a free and just trial replete with due process, and access to political participation for all citizens.
Many are concerned that in the trials of JI leaders, it is Islam that has been hung. Religious satire and anti-Islamic rhetoric have flourished in an unprecedented way. Hasnat Lais writes in the Independent that religious students are outraged by the increasing number of anti-Islamic blog posts being shared on the internet. "They claim it was giving voice to a generation of Bengalis whose contempt for Islam dripped from every word."
Even some JI opponents in the West are hesitant in adopting Shahbag protestors. They say that the protesters made a serious political mistake by allowing anti-Islamic bloggers and people in their midst. This move and calls to violence have stained the whole movement.
Others such as Drishtipat DC , a volunteer network that seeks to promote human rights and social justice within the Bangladeshi and Bangladeshi-American community has stood in solidarity with Shahbag protestors.
The situation is scary for Bangladeshi Americans as they fear for the lives of relatives overseas. A few requested that their names be withheld because they feared retribution against their friends and family in Bangladesh. Some Bangladeshi-Americans feel that if they raise their voices here against what they perceive as injustice, they will be called 'razakar' (as part of Pakistan’s militia in the 1971 war) and their families in Bangladesh will be harmed. One family recently returned to Greenbelt, MD from a trip to Bangladesh and shared stories of effects of the protests on daily life in Dhaka, especially the amount of police stationed around the masajid.
Some residents of Bengali heritage in the D.C. Metropolitan area are removed from the situation. Dr. Selina Khan was attending an event at a local masjid when asked about her views on the situation in Bangladesh. "I work fulltime and am involved in community service; I do not have time to watch the news," she said as she chased her grandson down the hall.
Others are highly in-tune and up-to-date on current events, especially those who participated in the War of 1971. "I was in favor of the liberation," says Nazrul Islam, a resident of Virginia. "In fact, my whole family was dedicated to fighting for the liberation. I was 12 at the time and collected ammunition and passed it to the freedom fighters."
Nazrul Islam feels betrayed by the current generation in Bangladesh, whom in his view has little idea of the sacrifices his generation made for Bangladesh. "The current government will continue killing until the last Muslim who wants to follow Islam in all spheres of his/her life is dead," he said.
Islam feels that people concerned about the stability of Bangladesh should meet with their imams and discuss the current situation so they can organize a demonstration in front of White House. He believes the community here in the U.S. can influence their representatives in Congress, raise awareness on the internet, and participate in discussions on national TV.
Khan and other concerned residents in the DC Area think that the Muslim community near the nation's capital can raise international concern over the lack of transparency and unfairness in the trial and the ICT.
Hoping that the fallout from the war crime tribunals does not spiral out of control, Bangladeshi Americans continue to keep a close eye on the news from the land of Bangladesh.