Monday, February 11, 2013

Shahbag: Reason vs the lynch mob mentality

Lynching is an extrajudicial execution carried out by a mob, often by hanging, but also by burning at the stake or shooting, in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate, control, or otherwise manipulate a population of people. Lynchings have been more frequent in times of social and economic tension, and have often been the means used by the politically dominant population to oppress social challengers.

A recent example could be the case of a woman accused of sorcery, who was tortured, burned and set on fire on Wednesday in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Reports in the local press say police tried to stop the killing, but were chased off by the crowd.

Now how about something that is transpiring towards such a mentality? This is a news report clip from, entitled "Gallows ready at Shahbag", which says that in Bangladesh, on the 5th of February, Tuesday, International Crimes Tribunal-2 pronounced life imprisonment for Jamaat-e-Islami Abdul Quader Molla, but the nation was clearly expecting a death penalty like in the case of Abul Kalam Azad alias Bachchu Razakar.

Protestors started to gather at Shahbagh on Tuesday evening saying the punishment was ‘too little’. They began demanding death penalty for Quader Molla. Six days later, the protestors at Shahbagh are now demanding execution of all war criminals.

A ‘gallows’ has been constructed at the roundabout and more and more people are pouring in to witness mock executions, said correspondents from Shahbagh.
The protesters called the punishment “too light”. And the crowd has raised slogans demanding death penalty for the killers and collaborators of 1971, such as "Fashi Chai, Fashi Chai" (We want hanging) and "Tui Razakar" (You are a collaborator). The protestors have also demanded a ban on Jamaat, a key ally of the main opposition BNP, and financial institutions popularly perceived as been supportive institutions to Jamaat such as Islami Bank, Diganta media, Ibn Sina Trust, Islami Bank hospital, etc. 

In light of demands of protesters from Shahbag, the local cable operators of Comilla city and Srimangal upazila in Moulvibazar suspended telecasting of private television channel Diganta TV expressing their solidarity to the Shahbagh demonstration. Diganta TV is well known to be a vocal opponent of malpractices of the present government and has documented government repression of opposition activists. Also, an ATM booth of Islami Bank Bangladesh Limited was torched by some unidentified youths in Khulna on Sunday afternoon. A group of six to seven youths on motorcycles vandalized the ATM booth and set it on fire around 3:10pm at Shibbari intersection, reported the banglanews correspondent.

The protesters have had the support of the government officials and eminent secular and left leaning personalities. They have also been criticized and/or questioned by others. Bangabir Kader Siddiqui said, “I support the movement of the young generation, but if it is at the behest of the Awami League, I don’t support it at all. If the movement can prove its spontaneity, people of the country will be with them. However, if it is stage-managed to divert the elections, I would stand up against it, alone if necessary.” BNP standing committee member Brig Gen (retd) ASM Hannan Shah has accused that the government is  politicizing the ongoing movement of the youth at Shahbagh.

The object of all this attention, Abdul Kader Molla, denies having committed the crimes and repeated his denial upon receiving the sentence. His party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has strongly condemned the verdict as politically motivated while his lawyers have pledged to appeal to the high court. Among the concerns raised by the defence are that the prosecution only presented 12 witnesses, many of whom were ‘hearsay’ witnesses and beneficiaries of the ruling Awami League led regime that has championed this tribunal. More tellingly, the defence themselves were permitted to only present six witnesses, half those permitted to the prosecution, in this high profile and much belated war crimes case. Ultimately, the defence observed that the trial deals with deeply emotional issues and the judges have permitted their emotion to cloud their reasoned judgement. The concerns are glaring.

A central issue in the human rights arena in Bangladesh, war crimes trials have drawn particular flak from all over the world, especially the US and UK governments. The tribunals have been criticized by the UK based The Economist and questioned by HRW on credible allegations of witness abductions and harassment of defence lawyers. HRW has even gone so far as to demand a retrial for one of the defendants, raising concerns over the impartiality and neutrality of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT). It is mentionable that the defendants constitute the entire leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Yet, in the face of such credible critique, senior ministers within the government have reacted with the remarkable claim that the criticism is part of a well-funded international conspiracy to undermine the tribunal and authorities. 

Daily Star and other papers have reported that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday (10th of February) thanked the youths for raising voice against the 1971 war criminals, and said her government would translate into action the oath thousands of protesters took at the Shahbagh grand rally on Friday.

In an inflammatory move, speaking in parliament, Hasina said the tribunals would deliver judgments according to the law, but they should consider the people’s expectations while giving verdicts on war crimes cases.“I am making this call to them [the judges] through parliament,” said Hasina, also the leader of the House.

The prime minister expressed solidarity with the six-point demand that the Shahbagh protesters submitted to the Speaker yesterday afternoon. Speaker Abdul Hamid said he forwarded the charter of demands to the premier, and the law and home ministers for taking necessary steps. He said the House expressed solidarity with the demonstrations at Shahbagh and elsewhere demanding capital punishment to war criminals.Participating in a nearly three-hour discussion, Hasina vowed to make sure that the war criminals are tried. “I heard them take the oath, and its every word is justified. We will do whatever is necessary to honour their oath. It is our commitment,” she said.

In a follow up, Daily Star reports that the cabinet on Monday approved the draft of International Crimes Tribunal (Amendment) Act-2013 to provide for appeal against inadequate sentence in war crimes cases.

If the act were passed, the state as well as plaintiff of a war crimes case would get the opportunity to file an appeal with the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court against any inadequate sentence in war crimes cases, said Cabinet Secretary M Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan.

Under the act, any appeal against the tribunal verdict would have to be filed before the Supreme Court within 30 days from the date of delivery of the verdict, Musharraf added. The Appellate Division would have to dispose off an appeal within 45 days from the date of its filing. If the apex court failed to dispose off an appeal within 45 days, it would get another 15 days, he said.

He said that the initiative came against the backdrop of the ongoing mass demonstrations for the death penalty of all war criminals including Jamaat assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Mollah.

The media has marketed the Shahbag protests as being apolitical, despite leaders being from various political backgrounds such as the Chatra Union, the Bangladesh Chatro League and various politically affiliated cultural and professional organizations, all under the banner of the Online Bloggers and Activists Forum, led by convener Imran H Sarker. Media coverage has also been high, with many ruling party affiliated media such as Desh TV , government owned BTV, Shomoy TV, Independent TV, Ekattor TV, Gazi TV,etc showing live proceedings for extended periods of time. These media have projected an all inclusive image of these protests and ironed out small incidents out of existence. The most recent of these incidents occurred when Chhatra League activists on Sunday night assaulted Lucky Akter, a frontline activist at the Shahbagh protests seeking death penalty of all war criminals, protesters said. 

Amidst the pressure exerted by the Shahbag protesters, the Prime Minister and leading ruling party officials for tribunal to give the death penalty on one hand and Jamaat-e-Islami (backed by the 18 party opposition) and world media such as the Economist for a fair trial for the accused on another hand, it is questionable as to how fair and just these trials will turn out to be. 

Making waters more muddy in the mix, 1971 wartime hero Bangabir Kader Siddiqui has demanded the breaking of the ICT on the latest edition of his popular show at Diganta, "Shobar upor Desh". Kader Siddiqui has also said that "Awami League (AL) government cannot demand that war criminals be hanged while keeping Rajakars in its cabinet". 

Golam Mawla Rony, MP from Awami League of Patuakhali-3, has raised his voice on a blog post to demand a fair trial of Abdul Kader Mollah, supporting Mollah's statements that he was in Faridpur in 1971 and claiming that Abdul Kader Mollah had been a freedom fighter since " he fought with lifetime Faridpur Secretary General SM Nurnobi (present AL central committee member)as a co-fighter on the battlefield in 71". 

Such remarks clearly challenge the one-sided narrative taking place in Bangladesh from Shahbag now. Its high time we resort to reason and realize that an issue such as the war crimes trials cannot take place independently in Bangladesh. This has become more of a political issue than ever and the whimsical change of a law to influence such trials only serves to confirm this. Perhaps the most damning statement in this all would be that of State Minister for Law, Quamrul Islam who said that, "The verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah for war crimes could have been different if people took to the streets ahead of the verdict."

The Shahbag poster

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