|Battered Bangladesh awaits more bloodshed
When Bangladesh set up a war crimes court in 2010, its stated aim was to heal the wounds from the nation's traumatic birth.
Three years on, its first verdicts have plunged the country into one of its most turbulent chapters since it broke free from Pakistan four decades ago and threatens lasting damage to the country where millions live in dire poverty.
More than 80 people have been killed in protests, thousands of tourists have fled and a series of strikes have pummeled the economy which has had growth rates of 6 percent over the last 10 years, AFP reports.
“The verdicts and the subsequent violence have set Bangladesh on the road to a protracted conflict, which may leave permanent damage to society,'' said Ataur Rahman, a Bangladesh expert based at the State University of New York.
The Dhaka-based International Crimes Tribunal, set up in March 2010, is trying around a dozen defendants over their role in the nine-month civil war leading up to independence in 1971 and has so far convicted three Islamists, two of whom have been sentenced to death.
But all the defendants are either members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party or of the main opposition Bangladesh National Party, prompting accusations that the process is politically-driven.
After the first verdict was handed down on January 21, thousands of Jamaat supporters took to the streets where many fought battles with the police.
Secular demonstrators responded with even bigger protests when the second defendant was sentenced to life in prison rather than ordered to hang.
Rahman said the divide between Bangladesh's Islamic and secular Bengali identities, which for decades had been “reconciled within the political process'', was now growing rapidly.
He warned of more violence in the coming months as the tribunal hands down its verdicts against seven more Jamaat officials and two from the BNP.
“It's already a chaotic situation, exacerbated by the perception among many people that the war crimes tribunal is flawed and biased,’’ he said.
The defendants are accused of having collaborated with forces from West Pakistan, leading militias on murderous rampages in towns and cities in 1971.
But their claims that the tribunal is biased have been bolstered by a series of controversies, including the resignation of the chief judge last year after a tapped phone conversation showed him discussing the case with prosecutors.
A defense witness was also abducted outside the courthouse.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government has steadfastly rejected criticism of the court which it insists operates independently.
The rivalry between Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia has been a central feature of politics here for years and the verdicts have fanned the flames.
Mubashar Hasan, a political Islam researcher in Bangladesh, said that democracy in a country wracked by coups, stands on the brink of disappearing unless the two women can agree to sit down and “save it from more bloodshed''.
“Chances are high that, the democracy of Bangladesh would be in jeopardy, if it is not already,'' said Hasan, based at Australia's Griffith University