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DHAKA: Bangladesh’s parliament yesterday amended a law to allow the prosecution of the country’s largest Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami for war crimes, in a move that could pave the way to it being banned.
News of the move was greeted by loud cheers from thousands of protesters in central Dhaka who have been demanding a ban on Jamaat, whose leaders are on trial for war crimes allegedly committed in the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
Law minister Shafique Ahmed said that under the new law “any organisation including Jamaat can be prosecuted” by a special court for war crimes and if found guilty “it can be banned” from politics.
Previously only individuals could be prosecuted for war crimes. “It’s one step towards banning Jamaat,” deputy law minister Qamrul Islam said.
The move comes after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Saturday indicated that she would back a ban on Jamaat, whose members are suspected in the murder of an anti-Islamist blogger, as it had “no right to be in politics in free Bangladesh”.
Jamaat was briefly outlawed by Hasina’s father, the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the 1970s for supporting Pakistan during the war. But a military government scrapped the ban after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975.
Demonstrations championed by online activists have seen thousands take to the streets for the last two weeks demanding the execution of Jamaat leaders accused of genocide during the 1971 war and a ban on the party.
“It’s a partial victory for us. We won’t stop protests unless Jamaat and Shibir (Jamaat’s student wing) are banned,” said Mahbub Rashid, a blogger and an organiser of the anti-Islamist demonstration.
Rival protests by Islamists demanding a halt to the trials of Jamaat leaders have turned violent across the country, leaving 13 people dead.
Clashes between police and Islamists have intensified since last week after a senior Jamaat leader was sentenced to life imprisonment for mass murder.
Jamaat and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have said the trials are based on bogus charges and are part of a wider political vendetta.
The government rejects the accusations and says the trials are needed to heal wounds from the nine-month war in which it says three million people were killed, many by pro-Pakistani militias whose members allegedly included Jamaat officials.
Both Jamaat and BNP boycotted the parliament, which passed the amended law less than a week after it was approved by the cabinet.
Parliament also amended war crime laws to ensure the Jamaat leaders can be swiftly executed if convicted and the verdict challenged if the sentence is less than death. It set a 60-day limit for the supreme court to dispose of appeals.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch this week criticised the law ahead of its passing, saying it “makes a mockery of the trial process”.
Opposition benches were empty as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the BNP) of former premier Begum Khaleda Zia and its allies have been boycotting sessions almost since her arch rival, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, took office in 2009.
Yesterday, BNP leaders and activists held a rally outside the party’s central office in the capital, calling for the next parliamentary election in January 2014 to be held under a non-party caretaker administration.
“The government is trying to use the protests over the war crime trials to divert attention form critical national issues such as our demand for election under a caretaker authority to ensure a clean and unbiased vote,” BNP’s acting Secretary-General, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, told the rally.
Other BNP leaders urged the demonstrators at Shahbag to speak out against “corruption, politicisation of the administration ahead of the polls and tampering the judiciary to persecute rivals.”Agencies