The scorching heat is no dampener for thousands of young protesters who have gathered for the past one month at Dhaka ‘s Shahbag Square, which has become a symbol of change akin to Tahrir Square in Egypt and Delhi’s India Gate.
Just adjacent to theBangbandhu medical college, and not far away from the Prime Minister’s residence, it has become home to thousands of students, doctors, artists, government officials and landless workers who have made it their abode amid chants of “phaansi” to traitors and “traitors go to Pakistan”.
The venue is strikingly similar to Delhi’s own protest street, Jantar Mantar, and the mood suddenly turns euphoric as the news of death penalty for key Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, trickles in. The news triggered widespread clashes across the country that left at least 32 people, including policemen and Jamaat members, dead. Never before in the history of the country the criticism of Islamic fundamentalism is so candid. Even the discovery of a live grenade just few hundred metres from the square hasn’t deterred them. It is a sweet victory for many like film director Sadia Swatee, the 24-year-old who did her bit every day expressing solidarity.
“It is the moment I was waiting for, I wasn’t born then but my family suffered at the hands of traitors,” she said in a choked voice. This comes on a day Bangladesh’s Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, had hoped for a violent paralysis of the country in a hartaal against their leaders’ trial.
“It is justice at last, but we will not go back till all the traitors get death penalty,” says Shashi Rabiual Islam, an engineering student, who travelled 300 km from Khulna to join the protest. Jamaat leader Sayedee was indicted on 20 charges on October 3, 2011, several months before the other Jamaat leaders facing trial. He was arrested and brought before the tribunal for the first time on November 2, 2010, nearly a year before the indictment.
The three-member International Crimes Tribunal was set up by Sheikh Haseena’s Awami League government to try war crime cases during the 1971 Liberation War, on March 25, 2010.
One of the largest Islamist parties in South Asia, Jamaat was the leading coalition partner of former Premier Khaleda Zia’s Bangaldesh Nationalist Party. It bred many terror groups but is now becoming an outcast in Bangladesh, with almost its entire top leadership behind bars on war crimes charges.
Those facing trial include the party’s former chief, its current chief, the secretary general and an assistant secretary general.
One assistant secretary general, Abdul Quader Molla, was sentenced to life for his war crimes on February 5 this year which sparked off mass protests demanding the death penalty. The prosecution proposed formal charges on July 11, 2011 alleging that Sayedee was a member and leader of the local Razakar unit, a vigilante militia, and committed crimes against humanity.