NEW DELHI -- Huge daily demonstrations in the heart of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, are upending the nation's politics and illustrating how heavily the country's bloody past still weighs on its present. Thousands of protesters, most of them college students and other young people, demonstrated again on Tuesday, fueled by broad public anger over a recent ruling by the country's special war crimes tribunal that they say was too lenient.
Though the protests have been peaceful, a gunfight erupted in another part of Dhaka on Tuesday when followers of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic political party, vandalized vehicles and clashed with the police. Earlier in the day, the Bangladeshi government had rejected a request by Jamaat leaders to stage a counterprotest against the youth demonstrations.
For more than two years, the Bangladeshi government has been prosecuting defendants accused of atrocities during the country's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. On Feb. 5, the special tribunal hearing the cases convicted Abdul Quader Mollah, 65, now a leader of the Jamaat party, on charges of rape and mass murder, and sentenced him to life in prison.
Within hours of the verdict, protesters gathered at Shahbagh, a major intersection in the center of the capital near Dhaka University. Their message was loud and clear: they thought the life sentence was too lenient, possibly the result of a political deal, and they demanded that Mr. Mollah be sentenced to death. Protesters waved torches and banners and chanted slogans like "Joy Bangla."
"We were really surprised" at the large turnout the first day, said Imran H. Sarkar, one of the organizers. "But young people were very concerned." Last weekend, the crowds swelled to 200,000 or more by some estimates.
Protests and strikes, common in Dhaka, are often coordinated and organized by political parties. But the Shahbagh protests, as the demonstrations over the verdict have come to be known, were organized by bloggers, and have attracted poets, artists, social activists and untold numbers of other citizens. Related protests are being held in other cities.
The protesters have directed their ire at Jamaat-e-Islami, which has been accused of opposing independence and collaborating with Pakistani forces during the 1971 war, charges the party has denied. At the Shahbagh protests, thousands of people pledged to boycott the Jamaat party and its related businesses, and a delegation of protest leaders presented the Bangladeshi Parliament with a list of demands, including that laws be changed so that Mr. Mollah's life sentence can be appealed.
Political analysts in Bangladesh say the youth demonstrations reflect broad public disenchantment with the usual style of Bangladeshi politics. Debapriya Bhattacharya, a Bangladeshi economist and former United Nations diplomat, said that the demands for tough sentencing reflected a broader public desire for closure on the 1971 war, in which rapes and assaults of women were common and an estimated three million people were killed.
"There is a general understanding among the people that they want justice in the case," said Mr. Bhattacharya, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Dialogue, a leading research institute in Dhaka. "And somehow, at the end of the day here, justice is about capital punishment."
The protests, he said, are entwined with a rising patriotism among many young Bangladeshis, who are proud of their country's progress, even as they often distrust the established political parties. "This is something different and something new," Mr. Bhattacharya said of the protests. "This is the rise of a new social force that can change the political calculus in the country."
The Awami League, the political party leading the national government, now faces political pressure from opposing directions. The Shahbagh protesters are complaining that the recent verdict is too lenient, while opposition parties, including the Jamaat party, have accused the government of manipulating the tribunal to ensure convictions of their leaders.
One justice has resigned from the tribunal over irregularities in its proceedings. Before its verdict on Feb. 5, Jamaat and other opposition parties staged huge protests against the tribunal's proceedings; they sought to renew those protests on Tuesday but the government denied their request. Tensions are expected to remain high as the tribunal issues more verdicts in coming weeks.
The scattered violence on Tuesday occurred about a mile away from the Shahbagh protest site. Followers of Jamaat and members of the party's youth wing were photographed smashing vehicles and clashing with security officers. Authorities say the Jamaat followers opened fire with machine guns and that the police responded with rubber bullets. Bangladeshi media reported that at least 10 people were injured by the rubber bullets, and that members of the Jamaat youth wing were seen firing weapons and throwing fire bombs.
Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.