After the execution of Abdul Quader Mollah for his role in war crimes in Bangladesh's war of independence, and ahead of parliamentary elections, observers fear an escalation of violence.
He was hated, even today, over 42 years after Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan. Abdul Quader Mollah, also known as the "Butcher of Mirpur," is said to have brutally killed around 350 unarmed civilians in the suburb of the capital city of Dhaka. The high-ranking politician of the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami commanded paramilitary groups which fought to stop the secession of the then province of East Pakistan. They terrorized civilians, carrying out executions, murder, torture and rape. In the nine-month war in 1971, around three million people were killed, according to government figures.
Abdul Quader Mollah had been sentenced to be hanged on Wednesday, December 11, for his role in the war crimes carried out. Bangladesh's Supreme Court rejected his last-minute appeal. He was hanged on the evening of Thursday, December 12, in a prison in Dhaka.
Mollah is the first Jamaat leader to be executed for mass crimes committed in the war of independence. Before his execution, his party had threatened grave consequences in the event he was put to death.
"What the Islamists meant by that is they will fill the streets with protests, put up blockades, strain the infrastructure, use bombs and carry out attacks on security forces," says Jasmin Lorch, a Bangladesh expert at the GIGA Institute of Asia Studies (IAS) in Hamburg. "There is a large number of young, angry men among the Jamaat-e-Islami supporters and they are very prepared to use violence. And we should prepare to see that happen."
Rights organizations have issued strong criticism against the execution. "We have an opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances," said Amnesty International's Abbas Faiz.
Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch, said the government should not act so irresponsibly at such a volatile moment: "War crimes verdicts have already led to major protests and violence this year. A hanging in such a controversial case in a volatile political atmosphere in the run-up to national elections will likely lead to large numbers of deaths, injuries and property damage."
"The government and protest leaders must take all possible steps to avoid violence," Adams added.
Criticism for the tribunal
A special war crimes tribunal was set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's ruling party, the Awami League, in 2011. At the beginning of last year, Mollah was originally sentenced to life in prison. Many people thought the sentence was too light and a number of Awami League supporters turned away from the party.
The sentencing led to mass protests, with thousands of people demonstrating at Dhaka's Shahbag Square, demanding not only that Abdul Qader Mollah receive the death penalty, but also that the secular state be reinforced against Islamists and strengthened. Relenting to the pressure, the Supreme Court rescinded the sentence and instead ordered the former Jamaat leader hanged.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and allied Islamists from Jamaat-e-Islami were incensed. They accused the tribunal of political motivation.
Lorch told DW the events did, in fact, imply political involvement: "The sentence had been handed down and then there was a civil movement demanding the death penalty, whereupon the original life sentence was commuted to death. A fully independent court would not change a verdict due to political pressure."
International human rights organizations and the United Nations have also criticized the tribunal for the same reason.
Many observers believe the government was aiming at gaining popularity by putting the Islamist to death - parliamentary elections are set to take place at the beginning of January. "The Awami League probably hopes that this execution will be a vote-winner among secular voters - it hopes to gain back the secular voters it originally lost because the tribunal had not gone far enough, according to them."
Secular vs. theocratic
There is an ongoing conflict in Bangladesh between secular and Islamic forces. This is embodied by the ruling Awami League and the largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), both of which have alternately ruled parliament for the past three decades.
With the months running up to the elections have been marked by fighting over the installment of a caretaker government to oversee the parliamentary elections, there is tension in the air. With elections coming up and also the war crimes tribunal, "the situation has the potential to become highly explosive," according to Lorch. She said it was likely the army could get involved like it did in 2007 if the polarization between the two parties continues.
The help of the international community is needed before it comes to that. The international community could "play an important role by demanding talks between the parties. But it would also send a signal that an intervention of the military is not welcome."