Overview of the Political situation in Bangladesh, allegations of political violence, and minority persecution: Some case studies
The current crisis was triggered by mass protests of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people along with the political opposition against what many believe to be a politically motivated International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). As observed by Steven Kay, an expert on international criminal law, the Bangladesh government has “withdrawn all the constitutional rights to a fair and impartial trial that an ordinary Bangladeshi citizen would have so it is a very unfair war crimes tribunal”. Numerous international legal experts and observers have observed that the Bangladeshi government’s refusal to allow a fair trial sheds doubt on the validity of the allegations and verdicts of the ICT, and strengthens the view that the ICT prosecution do not have a case that would stand up in an impartial court of law.
Allmost 200 people have been killed and many thousands severely injured in the past few weeks but the true extent is thought to be much more. Human Rights Watch, whilst criticising the response from the main opposition, has observed that “most deaths appear to have been caused by the security forces using live ammunition.” Video footage shows police firing live and rubber bullets directly into crowds of protestors and shooting handcuffed youth at point blank range intending to kill or maim.
The polarisation within the country into two equally forceful camps is evident. This crisis has been precipitated by a number of key factors which are outlined below.
1. Implications of politicising the judiciary and undermining the rule of law
The International Commission of Jurists has stated that, “there have been credible allegations of collusion between the Government, prosecutors and judges”. The politicisation of the ICT and its use by the government as a political instrument has profoundly undermined the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
The ICT specifically targets members of both leading opposition political parties. Persons who are close to the Awami League are not investigated for war crimes, though there are strong allegations even against the current Awami League Home Minister made by a decorated 1971 liberation war hero.
Case Study: Government puts pressure on judges and intervenes in judicial process
Human Rights Watch states that, “Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was reported by media as saying she would talk to the judges to convince them to take the sentiments of the [Shahbag] protesters into account in formulating their decisions.”
Human Rights Watch further objects to the government’s intervention in the judicial process of the ICT when in February 2013 it passed a retroactive law within a week of the Kader Molla sentence changing the rules of the ICT to allow the prosecution to appeal the sentence. HRW states “a government supposedly guided by the rule of law cannot simply pass retroactive laws to overrule court decisions when it doesn’t like them”.
Such open pressure from the government and the Shahbag rally on the ICT has now set a dangerous precedence for mob justice. It will be unsurprising if the different groups so passionately contesting the Bangladeshi political space now or even criminals feel it appropriate to demand that their opinions should also influence or dictate court decisions.
2. Stigmatising opposition with various labels and allegations to justify repression
The Awami League and its supporters, in preparation for the trials, have for many years launched a concerted campaign vilifying Jamaat-e-Islami members as “war criminals” and “anti-liberation forces” and creating a frenzy of public sentiment against them. The culmination of this campaign is the ICT itself and the Shahbag rally where protestors openly called for anyone associated with “anti liberation forces” to be boycotted, banned and ostracized. In the context of this branding campaign the government enshrined stigmatisation by introducing a provision in the February 2013 law that retroactively changed the rules of the ICT; significantly this stated that not only individuals but also “any organisation which is accused of crimes against humanity can be brought under justice”.
There is now a culture of using the “war criminal” and “anti-liberation” label to stigmatise opponents in order to justify persecution and attacks against them. Prime Minister Hasina has felt able to accuse opposition BNP leader, Khaleda Zia, on 16 March 2013 of never having wanted Bangladesh’s independence even though it is well known that Kaleda Zia’s late husband, Ziaur Rahman, was a decorated liberation war hero and made the famous radio announcement in 1971 declaring the independence of Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has even attributed garment industry fires on “sabotage by anti liberation forces” amongst a host of other problems plaguing Bangladesh for which she has held “war criminals” liable. Indeed Brad Adam’s has commented in Human Rights Watch’s January 2013 report that “The government seems to view every critic, including reputable domestic NGOs, as part of some vast conspiracy to topple it…” 
Case Study: Child killing resulting from Awami League infighting blamed on Jamaat
17-year-old Tanvir Mohammad Toki, son of an activist affiliated to the ruling Awami League party, was found dead on 8 March 2013. The ruling Awami League, the Shahbag rally and the media immediately launched a campaign blaming Jamaat-e-Islami and the government used this opportunity to carry out mass arrests of Jamaat-e-Islami members. However, on 16 March, national media reported that Toki’s father and the local Awami League party mayor accused the local Awami League MP, Shamim Osman, of murdering Toki in revenge for some internal infighting.
Case Study: Shahbag rally’s slogans lead to violent attacks against the opposition
In February 2013, the Shahbag rally in its “Six-point Charter” demanded the death penalty for all the “war criminals” and described several newspapers, TV stations and online blogs, banks, medical and pharmaceutical institutions and welfare, cultural and educational organisations as “organisations of the war criminals” calling for them to be boycotted and banned.
On 8 February, tens of thousands of people at Shahbag swore an oath to demand, “the arrest and severe punishment of Jamaat and Shibir members for “anti-liberation” activities … to ban the politics of the “war criminal” organisations Jamaat and Shibir and withdraw the citizenship of all their members”.
In the wake of this ceremony, various media including social media were flooded with video footage of Awami League cadres shouting Shahbag rally slogans while attacking and destroying many of the institutions specifically named at Shahbag such as a community hospital and “Retina”, a medical school coaching centre which are affiliated to Jamaat-e-Islami.
Case Study: Shahbag rally demands the harassment of journalists who are critical of the ICT
On 23 February 2013, the Shahbag leaders declared before a cheering crowd their demand for the arrest within 24 hours of Mahmudur Rahman, the editor of a mainstream secular newspaper, Amardesh. Amardesh newspaper has previously been shut down by the government following its exposure of cases of government corruption.
Amnesty reported in February that, “Mahmudur Rahman, editor of the Bangladeshi newspaper, Amar Desh, is facing sedition charges after he published details of a Skype conversation between the former chairman of the Bangladeshi court, the International Crimes Tribunal, and a Bangladeshi legal expert based abroad ... He has remained in his newspaper’s offices since 13 December 2012 for fear that he would be arrested if he leaves the premises …. There are a number of irregularities in the preparation of the charge against Mahmudur Rahman that support the suspicion that it might be politically motivated in order to harass him. A full report of the Skype conversation had already been published by the UK magazine, The Economist …”
The Shahbag oath ceremony and demands to boycott newspapers were made in the context of an ongoing campaign of brutal harassment of the media by the government and ruling party members, so the consequences of the demands were quite predictable. Immediately previous to Shahbag, Human rights auditor Odhikar reports that “on January 5, 2013 Chhatra League activists beat and illegally detained Reuter’s reporter Andrew Reaz; New Age reporter Sony Ramani; Bangla News photo journalist Harun ar Rashid Rubel; and Prothom Alo correspondent Hassan Raja when they were taking photos of cocktail blasts at the Dhaka University campus. Chhatra League activists held the journalists captive after beating them and deleted the photographs after snatching away their cameras.” 
Human Rights Watch reported on 14 February that it “has also received credible reports of an arson attack on the offices of Naya Diganta, a media company politically affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islamiya party. At least 30 people were injured on February 12, including the editor of the newspaper Prothom Alo, who sources told Human Rights Watch was severely hurt by rubber bullets in his chest. The editor and offices of Amar Desh, which has published articles critical of the ruling Awami League party and of the war crimes `trials, have reported threats.” 
Human rights auditor Odhikar further reports that on 5 February, “Daily Amar Desh and the Daily Naya Diganta and two teachers who were critical of the government and the rally, Dr. Asif Nazrul and Dr. Piyash Karim…were labelled by the Shahbag rally leaders as dissenters who must be ostracised.” 
On 12 February 2013, “a group of criminals attacked and set fire to the daily Naya Diganta office at Inner Circular Road in Motijheel, Dhaka. They also set fire to a microbus in front of the newspaper office. Furthermore, some bundles of newspapers were set on fire at different places in the country.”
Amnesty has reported in 2012 that “Journalists who write about corruption, judicial irregularities, and human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, rape in custody, and other gender based violence, are particularly at risk of being harassed by police or security agencies, detained on politically motivated charges and tortured or otherwise ill treated.”
3. Awami League and progressives avow secularism but often disregard the rule of law and liberal values
Awami League and its supporters appear to the outside world as liberal and democratic. Yet their actions within the country are sometimes quite illiberal, exemplified by the way in which the International Crimes Tribunal has been pursued; undermining fundamental principles of justice and the rule of law.
Self described secular liberals who predominantly direct the Bangladesh offices of reputable international organisations have used their positions to issue inaccurate and biased statements in the names of these organisations.
4. Persecution of minorities
The recent EU statement places the unsubstantiated statistic of 900,000 Hindus who have apparently migrated from Bangladesh since 2001, in the context of minority persecution, implying that Islamic political parties are mainly responsible. All the main parties have condemned the attacks, and Jamaat-e-Islami has in a statement responded to the allegations. It has also denied involvement and has instructed its members to guard temples and help prevent such attacks.
Over the past four years the evidence of news reports as well as the plethora of cases, documented in detail by human rights organisations overwhelmingly reveals that most of the cases of minority persecution which can be attributed to those affiliated to a political party, have been carried out by members and groups belonging to the ruling Awami League party.
A spokesperson for the Bangladeshi Hindu community in the UK, Mr Biplab Kumar Podda, has stated that those affiliated to authoritarian Bangladeshi government in the past have commonly taken advantage of their powerful position to oppress religious minorities. He further states that it is unlikely that Jamaat-e-Islami and Shibir are involved in persecuting minorities as they themselves are struggling under government harassment, and would be unable to organise such an offensive.
In contrast to his considered experiential account, The Economist states, without providing evidence or sources, that “Jamaat has been behaving more like an insurgency than a political party. “Thugs have used children as human shields, attacked Hindu homes and temples and hacked policemen to death.” There is now many footage showing children caught up in crowds running away from police fire; it is extraordinary that the deaths of children shot by security forces can be portrayed as the Jamaat use of children as human shields.
One of the Jamaar-e-Islami leaders accused in the ICT, Sayedee has been twice elected as an MP in Pirojpor an area which is 30% non-Muslim. As he is one of a handful of Jamaat MPs elected, the non-Muslim vote is an important one for Jamaat-e-Islami. Many of Sayedee’s speeches contain preaching on communal harmony and strongly encourage Muslims to look after Hindu neighbours.
The influence of partisan media and politics on minority witness statements
There are only a handful of witness statements asserting that individuals attending “Jamaat rallies” have carried out the attacks on minorities, and in fact no named Jamaat or Shibir member has yet been implicated. We must remember the highly charged climate in Bangladesh, where a number of Hindu witnesses have alleged in interviews that the International Crimes Tribunal prosecution have tried to induce them to give false witness against Sayedee. The subsequent abduction of one of these witnesses has been the subject of an HRW report  as well as a report by the Bar Human Rights Committee for England and Wales. It is not unreasonable to imagine that similar pressures and/or partisan political affiliations may have come into play in the allegations against Jamaat by victims and those who purport to speak for them.
Case Studies: Jamaat blamed for attacks on Hindus and other minorities whilst majority of cases have been carried out by Awami League members
Human rights auditor Odhikar reported in January 2013 that:
“On September 29, 2012, 12 Buddhist monasteries and temples and 40 houses belonging to members of the Buddhist community were vandalised and torched by criminals with the help of local leaders of the ruling party in Ramu of Cox’s Bazaar…Local Buddhist monks alleged that “those people who led the attacks and processions are roaming around. However, innocent people are being arrested.” The responsible police officers of Cox’s Bazaar also admitted this to the daily Prothom Alo. They said, there is a restriction to arrest leaders and activists of the ruling party, that came from the ‘top levels’.”
However, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the government and so-called secular and liberal civil society establishments were quick to blame Jamaat-e-Islami. On 22 December 2012, “A group of eminent citizens, comprising 15 academics, writers and human rights activists, have called for a convention to resist the "communal, fundamentalist and militant forces" in the country … and to protest against the "heinous attacks" on the Buddhist community in Ramu Upazila of Cox's Bazar district and its adjoining areas, and the violent activities carried out across the country to foil the ongoing trial of the "war criminals"”
On 13 December 2012, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Press Secretary denied that the persons involved in the brutal killing of Biswajit Das on 9 December 2012 were Chatra League activists even though the incident was caught on video camera. This caused much anger amongst the Hindu community, who remonstrated the government for attempting to shift the blame away from the Awami League members. On 5 March 2013, twenty one members of Chatra League were indicted in connection with Biswajit’s killing.
Amadershomoy, a Banagldeshi daily, reports on 19 March, ‘Hindu leader Kajol Debonath said that Hindu people are tortured and forced to leave the country in order to seize their property. He accused the government activists Awami League for involvement in these crimes. An Assam influential daily newspaper named “Jugsukkow” published a report on this matter. Under the heading “Hasina failed protecting Hindu people” the report states, with reference to Gobindrochondro Pramanic, the Secretary General of Bangladesh Hindu Grand Alliance, stated that Hindu people are being tortured and their houses are being burned and looted with a master plan to destroy their claim to 26 lac Acres of land.’
Despite historical precedence and evidence to the contrary, Sultana Kamal, the chair of Transparency International Bangladesh, has spearheaded a campaign to blame Jamaat-e-Islami for the recent spate of attacks on minorities.
However, on 17 March 2013, a statement made by two different Hindu Temple committee representatives, Nitta Gopal Muzamdar and Babu Shudep Mozumdar of Lokkhipur, in the presence of more than 100 representatives of the Hindu community, asserts that “although some media have claimed that Jamaat/Shibir have been involved in the destruction of temples, this is not actually the case”. A number of analysts in newspapers which are normally very critical of Jamaat-e-Islami, have written that the attacks on the minority community are being carried out by members of the ruling party.
More recently, it seems that when the Awami League government has realised that the blame cannot be placed on Jamaat and Shibir, they are beginning to arbitrarily point the finger of blame elsewhere; the Secretary General of the ruling party, Ashraf, has recently stated that the opposition party, The BNP is more responsible for these attacks because Jamaat is not in a (organised) position to carry out such attacks.
5. Repression of the opposition
The recent EU statement  implies that Jamaat-e-Islami members are mainly responsible for the violence and deaths that have occurred over the past few weeks during the protests, and also suggested that they are the main instigators too.
In contrast to the emphasis on violence created by protestors, the excesses of the government law enforcement agencies when dealing with the ongoing protests is now extensively publicised by the large number of disturbing reports and footage circulating widely in social media, and some mainstream media. Police violence on protestors precipitating violent reaction include:
· Police firing at unarmed individuals at close range;
· Police firing into retreating crowds;
· Police firing into Mosques;
· Police beating young men who are begging for mercy;
· Police beating handcuffed men;
· Police dragging unarmed elderly prayer goers and beating them,
· Police arresting people who are in the middle of prayers
As commented upon by reputable human rights groups – these actions of the government law enforcers has precipitated many uncontrollable situations especially amongst post Friday-prayer crowds: Around 200 civilians have been shot dead by police since and thousands injured by rubber and live bullets and beatings. The reaction of the crowds to police action has often been confused, fierce, and sometimes very violent; 6 policemen have died.
Police rewarded for violence against opposition
Astonishingly, the Home Minister in January 2013, awarded a medal to the commissioner of the police force commending him for his brutal public physical attack on the chief whip of the opposition BNP party. The police have used politically motivated arrests to their personal advantage, as a racketeering opportunity and many victims have complained that the number of arbitrary arrests has increased for this reason, and that they have had to pay large bribes to the police to release their relatives.
Protestors are from all sections of society and not just Islamic political parties
The extent and diversity of those participating in the anti-government protests has not yet been properly noted by international observers. The main 18 party opposition alliance lead by the BNP, has been joined by multitudes of ordinary Bangladeshis, expressing various grievances against the government in the run up to the next elections. It is significant that traditionally nonpolitical Sufi-inspired groups under a coalition of 12 organizations lead by the Hefazot Islami group are also numerously involved. The government’s aggressive activities have even been condemned by the leader of an ally within the ruling coalition, Ershad, a former president of Bangladesh.
There are many spontaneous protests against the Sayeede verdict, widely seen as unjust and clearly exemplifying all the legal and procedural problems with the ICT. Sayeede has huge popularity beyond the Jamaat-e-Islami; his lectures regularly attracted crowds of 100k including many nonMuslim minorities; audio/videos of his lectures are ubiquitous in Bangaldeshi households throughout the world. Women in burka have conducted large protest marches against the Sayedee verdict, a sight quite unprecedented in Bangladesh. In reality, many protests have taken place after daily prayers or Friday prayers, the times when most Bangladeshis wear traditional religious attire. Police actions and firing at Mosques have precipitated many uncontrollable situations amongst post Friday prayer crowds. Although the opposition to the government is quite diverse and widespread, media and some international bodies have been quick to assume that the sometimes violent reaction of protestors can mostly be attributed to Islamic political parties, especially when the protestors are dressed in religious clothing.
Case Study: Prime Minister Hasina announces vigilante committees
In March 2013, Prime Minister Hasina hazardously announced extra-official and unaccountable vigilante “ anti-terror committees” to be organised and manned by Awami League party members throughout the country. Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, a BNP Standing Committee member on Sunday 10th March criticised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina “for trying to “annihilate” the BNP-led opposition 18-party alliance by ordering to form anti-terror committees nationwide.” He further stated that “the government has failed to keep the country’s law and order under control. Such committees will be instruments to suppress and annihilate her political opponents instead of combating terrorism.”
Removal of the caretaker government:
In view of upcoming elections in the next year, the Awami League government has also removed the Caretaker Government system, which had previously ensured that Bangladesh’s general elections are run under the auspices of a neutral government.
Mass arrests debilitate opposition
On 23 February 2013, cases were filed against 50,000 opposition members in one single day. Many of those arrested have been tortured. Amnesty International has called upon the government to stop the arbitrary arrests of opposition members.
Banning political parties
Sayeda Warsi, Senior UK Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, stated during her recent visit to Bangladesh: “I don’t believe the banning of a political party is the best way to actually achieve a winning in the battle of ideas.”
One of the main demands of the Shahbag rally is to remove ‘Islamic politics’ from every aspect of Bangladeshi society, including hospitals, banks, charities and educational bodies. There is passionate sentiment prevailing amongst many in the ruling establishment that those who subscribe to ‘Islamic faith’ guided politics such as the Jamat-e-Islami were against the very birth of the nation and were on the side of those who committed atrocities on the Bangladeshi people. Furthermore that overt religiosity is backward, preventing Bangladesh from being progressive and moving forward in modern times. However, the ideal of a secular state is being achieved using illiberal and undemocratic methods.
The government has recently bought in legislation on the back of the ICT trials, seeking to legally ban political parties, and even nonpolitical organisations such as media or welfare instituitions, that are deemed to be non secular, anti liberation or supporters of war criminals. Even individuals, who are considered anti liberation or supporters of war criminals can be imprisoned on the basis of being found to be in contempt of the ICT court.
There have been moves to ban political parties by executive order too, if it can be proven that they are carrying out anti state (anti national liberation) activities or violence against minorities. Hence there have been concerted efforts to implicate parties such as the Jamat-e-Islam and many individuals as anti liberation traitors, ‘war criminals and collaborators. Furthermore, by holding them responsible for anti state violence and violence against minorities.
The calls to ban Islamic political parties is a symptom of an extreme and intolerant brand of secularism that is undermining Bangladesh’s moderate traditions. Jamaat-e-Islami, which has a sizeable following beyond those who vote for it, has historically maintained its commitment to parliamentary democracy since its inception, and has successfully held ministerial positions without acting in any way to undermine democratic ideals or political plurality in the past.
The impact of disabling the organisational capacity of Jamaat-e-Islami and removing the moderating influence of the senior leadership from the political arena
For almost three years, the top most leaders as well as a whole tier of top and mid-level leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami throughout the country have been imprisoned, or so significantly harassed that they have been unable to function as an organisation, hold meetings or even communicate. This has had predictable results on the law and order situation in the past few weeks, as lower level party supporters are largely conducting themselves without the moderating influence that the Jamaat-e-Islami senior leadership, organisational discipline and decision making process has exerted over them in the past.
6. Government supporting the Shahbag rally, and incitement to religious hatred
Some of the bloggers leading the Shahbag have produced text and pictures in their blogs which derogate and abuse, sometimes in pornographic terms, the central components and personalities of the Islamic faith. In addition, those who subscribe to a public expression of the Islamic faith have been targeted in abusive and threatening language, with calls that can be described as incitement to religious hatred to ‘eliminate’ them from Bangladeshi soil. The government has polarised the ordinary public by expressing unconditional support for the Shahbag rally, and indeed the government and the Shahbag seem to be working in a mutually beneficial manner.
The controversial bloggers who had been left undisturbed for many years, appear to the public to have been promoted to the central stage of the country by the Bangladesh government. It has come as a shock to many Bangladeshis that the government of a Muslim majority nation can advocate as leaders of the nation, people with these abusive and inflammatory campaigns. The government’s support for the Shahbag in these circumstances has predictably alienated a vast group of people, and has been the recipe for much unrest, attracting protestors from all sections of Bangladeshi society.
To avoid civil conflict, the way forward is for the trials to be removed from the fraught and partisan domestic political arena and reconstituted under the supervision of impartial international legal bodies. Only then can the wounds of the 1971 liberation war be truly healed. Unfair trials and politically motivated vengeance is creating new wounds that are dangerously bringing Bangladesh to the brink of unpredictable civil conflict.
The Awami League government needs to stop the wholesale persecution of opposition, which is causing such widespread reaction and conflict. The Islamic political parties that subscribe to democratic values and practices must be allowed to function in Bangladesh. The support given by the “secular liberal” establishment to the Awami League government’s effort to deny this space to Islamic politics is empowering the government to carry out massive repression and persecution, which has already resulted in enormous bloodshed.