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Bangladesh protests expose 40-year rifts

Dhaka, Feb 16 (): Bangladesh’s largest protests in over two decades expanded, as tens of thousands of protesters came to the streets on Friday to demand death penalty for people convicted of war crimes in the country’s 1971 war of independence.

They had waited more than four decades for justice in the mass killings and rapes during their independence war. It took decades to look at the massacres committed at that time, and the first verdict came this year, including the conviction of a senior leader of Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party.

A former leader from Jamaat-e-Islami party was sentenced to death in absentia. Another leader, Abdul Kader Mullah, was given a life sentence last week. He is celebrating his life sentence – when he was expected death sentence – for his role in the killing of 381 civilians.

Mullah was convicted by a special war crimes tribunal that was set up to hold people accountable for the first time for their roles in the civil war, where Bangladesh says as many as 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women raped by Pakistani troops and local collaborators.

The protesters say the sentences have been too lenient, or that the process has been imperfect. At the same time, supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami held separate protests calling for Mullah’s release.

The trials are also seen as part of a long  rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who is allied with the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, many of whose leaders face charges before the tribunal.

Another eight members of Mullah’s Jamaat-e-Islami party are also on trial, as are two members of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, including a former government minister.

Clashes between the police and Jamaat activists took place in Cox’s Bazar on Friday. The police said they opened fire only after being shot at and attacked with stones and homemade bombs. The three were killed in clashes.

Human rights groups have said the tribunal falls short of international standards. Jamaat and BNP blame the current government of pursuing a political vendetta through the tribunal.