NEW DELHI -- Authorities were bracing for more political violence in Bangladesh after a court ruling Thursday that effectively banned the country’s main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, from running in a general election expected by early 2014.
In a controversial decision, the High Court ruled that Jamaat-e-Islami’s registration violated the nation’s secular constitution. This triggered protests by party supporters in Jessore, Bogra, Gaibandha and the capital, Dhaka, where demonstrators smashed vehicles and blocked roads, according to police. More protests were expected in coming days.
Local media reported that Jamaat-e-Islami immediately appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse the verdict. Jamaat-e-Islami leaders called for nationwide protests Saturday, and after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, on Aug. 12 and Aug. 13, to counter “conspiracies” aimed at eliminating the party. The decision threatens democracy and rule of law, the party added in a statement.
Even those who don’t support the conservative Islamic party -- which advocates the creation of an Islamic state, Sharia law and closer ties with Saudi Arabia -- said the court appeared to overstep its mandate with this decision, risking greater social division.
“This will lead to the sort of reaction we dread, especially after Ramadan,” said Bobby Hajjaj, a Dhaka-based business development consultant and columnist. “I’m no supporter of Jamaat, but this is politically motivated. It creates a mess.”
Several senior party leaders have been convicted in recent months by a tribunal set up to investigate murder, rape and torture incidents during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. Of the six Jamaat-e-Islami leaders convicted, four were given the death penalty and two sentenced to life in prison. The party favored Pakistan during the conflict but denies it acted illegally.
The tribunal has been highly divisive, with critics accusing it of being politically motivated. New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday that violent protests sparked by controversial court rulings have led to 150 deaths since February.
With more court verdicts against Jamaat-e-Islami leaders expected, “street protests are likely to be frequent and the risk of further violence is high," Brad Adams, the group's Asia division head, said in a statement.
It was one thing to bring individuals to trial for alleged crimes, another to try and order away a political party that’s been active for two decades, analysts said, a move that could strengthen Jamaat-e-Islami by making it look like the victim.
“This is ominous for Bangladesh politics,” said Ataur Rahman, a political science professor at the University of Dhaka. “We always wanted an inclusive political system. If a party is rejected by the people at the ballot box, that’s one thing. But if you only use power, that’s another.”
Behind the court decision are a web of shifting political alliances in advance of the upcoming election. Although Jamaat-e-Islami holds only one seat, it’s often played a swing role in Bangladesh politics and enjoys significant support in rural areas.
The ruling Awami League is reportedly worried because Jamaat-e-Islami has allied with the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, weakening its reelection chances. Awami reportedly tried before Ramadan to lure away Jamaat-e-Islami, analysts said but was not successful. Thursday’s court decision followed. Pushed into a corner, analysts added, Jamaat-e-Islami may now feel it has little choice but to hit the streets for its survival.
“Jamaat is not willing to compromise,” Rahman said. “Things are going to be hot, discordant and violent. A change of government is inevitable, but Bangladesh will not have a very smooth transfer of power. It’s unfortunate. The country can’t afford this.”