BANGLADESH seems to be headed towards a major political crisis as the fatality toll in three days of violence, following Thursday’s sentencing to death of a Jamaat-i-Islami leader, has crossed 50. The widespread violence resulted from clashes not only between the police and Jamaat workers but also between the latter and supporters of the ruling Awami League. A disturbing development for the government is the decision by the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to join the protests. Reacting to the death sentence passed on Jamaat vice president Delwar Hossain Sayedee and using strong language, BNP leader Khaleda Zia denounced what she called “brutality” and “mass killing” by the government and asked the people to “come out on the streets”. Bangladesh can expect more violence as Ms Zia has called for a strike on Tuesday, in addition to the one given by the Jamaat for today and Monday. Mr Sayedee is the third Jamaat leader to be convicted for alleged war crimes. The prosecution had accused him of crimes ranging from arson and torture to rape and murder. However, the tribunal that decreed the ultimate punishment is controversial. Rights groups say the court’s procedures do not conform to international standards, and the opposition accuses Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed of using war crimes allegations to persecute opponents — two BNP members are also being tried.
We know that crimes were indeed committed during those dark and painful days when the army was trying to crush popular resistance. Among those who helped the army in the civil war were the Jamaat’s Al Shams and Al Badr militias. But trying alleged war criminals more than four decades after the event smacks of vindictiveness and a political witch-hunt. The AL had been in power earlier, too, so it must explain, first and foremost to its own people, why it has chosen to start this judicial drama now. All sides should realise that the violence could snowball and perhaps pose a threat to Bangladesh’s democracy. The better alternative would be to embark on an exercise of reconciliation and forgiveness to put the past behind and move on.