By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury
DHAKA – The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), leader of the 18-party opposition, threatened to call another national strike on March 21 if more than 150 of its activists, are not released from police custody soon. The activists were arrested after violence marred a political rally in Dhaka on Monday, with attacks and vandalism spreading through the country during a dawn-till-dusk protest over clashes in a political standoff that have claimed nearly 100 lives in the past two weeks.
District BNP President Abdul Mannan, speaking at a press briefing at BNP headquarters on Wednesday, said the shutdown would be observed by if BNP Joint General Secretaries Aman Ullah Aman and Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, Opposition Chief Whip Zainul Abdin Farroque and other leaders were not released unconditionally. The opposition party leaders had called the nationwide strikes at a rally in the capital city that descended into clashes between police and protesters, and they were arrested over claims that they sparked the violence.
Joint Secretary General of BNP Salahuddin Ahmed said on Tuesday that through the raid on BNP office the government had finally ”nailed the coffin on democracy” and reiterated BNP’s ultimatum to release all its activists.”Otherwise, stronger political programs will be declared by the opposition,” he said. Ahmed also called the recovery of 10 crude bombs from the BNP office a day earlier by the police ”a conspiracy” by the government.
Sporadic attacks and acts of vandalism have left a trail of destruction throughout Bangladesh after police raided the BNP offices to make the arrests on Tuesday. While the raids at the opposition party office were criticized by the civil society and some members of the ruling party, Bangladeshis are now dreading the near “civil-war” like situation may deteriorate in the months to come, as the year crawls agonizingly toward the upcoming national parliamentary elections.
Hearing on the remand and bail petitions relating to the two cases filed against the arrested leaders will take place on March 20. The police had filed these two cases against 154 named 18-Party Alliance activists and up to 50 anonymous others over the incident.
While BNP Acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Vice President Sadeque Hossain Khoka and Altaf Hossain Chowdhury were released on Tuesday without the police naming them in the cases, the force sought a total of 17 days’ remand to interrogate the remaining leaders.
Mehdi Hassan, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, while conducting raids on the BNP office on Monday, an hour after the conflicts at the rally, said: “You [the press] have seen that the police were monitoring the rally from a distance. We responded only after we were attacked by opposition activists armed with batons and sticks.”
Political waters in Bangladesh turned murkier following the February 28 verdict by International Crimes Tribunal-1 (ICT) against Delwar Hossain Sayedee, Nayeb-e-Ameer of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the parties in the 18-member alliance. During the bloody independence of Bangladesh in 1971, most of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami collaborated with the Pakistani armed forces to wreak havoc on the Bangladeshi populace. Jamaat, a faction of the original political party in Pakistan, in 1971 officially rejected Bangladesh’s desire to split from Pakistan (at that time was known as West Pakistan).
Sayedee’s verdict came 23 days after another war criminal and Jamaat general secretary Abdul Quader Mollah was sentenced to life-term imprisonment of 31 years. As the verdict on February 5 was not deemed satisfactory, protestors, lead by bloggers and online activists, initiated a peaceful protest in Dhaka, which is currently in its 37th day.
On February 28, while protesters at the Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka and others elsewhere in the country celebrated Sayedee’s punishment, a nationwide shutdown called by Jamaat on the day claimed the lives of more than 39 people, including policemen, opposition party activists, women and children.
More clashes erupted the next day in Bogra, Gaibandha, Ranpur, Chittagong, Noakhali and other districts of Bangladesh, leading to more deaths. Enraged mobs took to the streets to vandalize and set fire to houses and temples of communities of other faiths in these districts. The seriousness of the crisis led to the deployment of army personnel to control the situation in Bogra.
By a week later, more than 100 people were reportedly dead. However, Jamaat and BNP said that the number was higher and claimed their leaders and activists are being killed by the police.
In a written statement on March 6, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) blamed the shoddy tribunal for pushing Bangladesh into a “civil war” as the violence is linked “to the war crimes tribunal and the judgments the tribunal pronounced.” AHRC claimed that the tribunal has negated some of the basic norms of criminal justice, for instance, it has held ”faceless” trials.
The statement read, “The tribunal specifically targets the Jamat-e-Islami, a political party that collaborated with the Pakistan military during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.” Pointing out that Jamaat was involved in crimes against humanity, the statement alleged, “the incumbent government knows this well, and in fact the tribunal is a shoddy attempt of legalizing a political act, that lacks transparency, accountability and is destined to fail justice … In addition, the Jamat-e-Islami has responded, in the manner in which it understands expressing dissent, through violence.”
Calling the tribunal “a political weapon of the incumbent government and its 14-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Awami League”, the AHRC also questioned why persons, who are close to the Awami League are not investigated for war crimes, despite strong allegations against them. The AHRC statement read, the ensuing confusion has resulted in opportunities for criminal elements in the country, to target their victims, most importantly the minorities. The statement ended by pointing out how state forces are murdering unarmed civilians.
In a bid to save its senior leaders arrested for crimes against humanity during 1971 and also to save itself from being banned, Jamaat has also strategically diverted the attention of the grassroots people from the war crimes trials through online propaganda claiming that the Shahbagh movement is “a movement by atheists”.
Soon after the murder of blogger Rajib Haider on February 15, blog posts mocking Islam, allegedly by the blogger, were spread over the Internet. However, the Blogger and Online Activist Network (BOAN) protestors denied the posts were by Rajib, while some called his murder was perpetrated by Jamaat and its student wing Shibir. Rajib’s body was found near his house in Pallabi on February 15.
Finally on March 2, the police arrested five students from North South University, Bangladesh’s first private university, in connection with Rajib’s murder. While confessing to the murder, the suspects pointed out that they do not belong to any political party. They were informed about blog posts against Islam and the prophet made by blogger Rajib and other bloggers by a senior fellow university student, who the police have alleged, was a former Shibir member.
Attacks on other bloggers have also been reported since the beginning of March. Due to the ensuing confusion, murder incidents are also on the rise, with the local media ever ready to account these to the Jamaat tally.
“The ongoing political crisis is going to get worse,” Sazzad Hossain, an architect in Dhaka, told Asia Times Online. “As more strikes are coming within the next few weeks, the general people are likely to suffer.”
“The crisis will continue. It all depends on the effectiveness of today’s strike,” Tauhidun Nabi, a bank official, told Asia Times Online on Tuesday.
Nawrin Sultana, an Executive MBA student at a private university, pointed out that there will be no solution to such wanton violence, “if there is no dialogue between the government and the opposition.”
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.
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