Seeking war crimes justice, Bangladesh protesters fight 'anti-Islam' label

Social activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have fueled rallies in February demanding death sentences for war criminals.

Story highlights

  • Ex-MP Sayedee is sentenced to hang for mass killings and rape
  • Seven of 10 indicted by the war crimes tribunal are Jamaat-e-Islam leaders
  • As many as 3 million people were killed and hundreds of thousands raped in the war
  • Jamaat-e-Islam decries what it calls a smear campaign
Every day since early February, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have massed at an intersection in Bangladesh's bustling capital city. But unlike the Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street movements, they're not calling for the overthrow of the government or greater economic equality.
The rallies, led by youths and fueled by social media, are demanding the death penalty for those who took part in war crimes during Bangladesh's bloody battle for independence from Pakistan more than four decades ago.
And in the fourth most populous Muslim country in the world, the peaceful movement is also trying to achieve something remarkable: a ban on extreme fundamentalist parties.
"It's a revolution. A social revolution," says Dhaka resident Shaon Tanvir. "They have been using social media very effectively. A couple of hours' notice, and hundreds and thousands of people turn up."
Parents bring their children, their faces painted red and green in the colors of the Bangladeshi flag. Housewives pack lunches for the demonstrators. Passing motorists honk their horns and flash thumbs-up signs.
"In Bangladesh, we've seen power struggle among the political parties over the years. Now we see the strength of the young generation without any party affiliation," said a college teacher, Saiful Islam, who joined the sit-in.
"They are not violent, but no parties can defy them or ignore the demands."
The genesis
During the nine-month war in 1971, between 1 million and 3 million people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of women were raped. Many of the atrocities were committed by Pakistani forces and their civilian collaborators.
"When the fighting was over, there were vultures almost too fat to fly, and Bangladesh was a land with few of the sinews of nationhood left unsevered," the National Geographic said in a piece soon after the birth of the country.