DHAKA, Bangladesh: For many in Bangladesh, the “V” for victory sign was more than they could bear.
They had waited more than four decades for justice in the mass killings and rapes during their independence war. But there was a smiling Abdul Quader Mollah apparently celebrating his life sentence — given in place of an expected death sentence — for his role in the killing of 381 civilians.
Within hours, thousands of university students demanding his death poured into the streets of Dhaka, the seeds of what has grown into a mass protest that has exposed again the unhealed wounds from the nation’s 1971 war for independence from Pakistan.
“I could not take it. That was really insulting,” Gazi Nasiruddin Khokon, a protester who works for an online newspaper, said of Mollah’s victorious gesture after his sentencing last week. “If we don’t get proper justice for such crimes, where would we stand in the future?”
Mollah was convicted by a special war crimes tribunal that was set up to hold people accountable for the first time for their roles in the civil war, where Bangladesh says as many as 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women raped by Pakistani troops and local collaborators.
But the trials are also seen as part of a long and bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasinaand the main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who is allied with the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami, many of whose leaders face charges before the tribunal.
Jamaat, which opposed Bangladesh’s fight for independence, and Zia have called the tribunal politically motivated, while international rights groups have raised questions about the conduct of the trials. The head of one of the tribunals resigned in December over reports he had improper conversations with a lawyer about the panel.
Mollah, an assistant secretary of Jamaat, was found guilty Feb. 5 of killing a student and a family of 11 and of aiding Pakistani troops in killing 369 others. Members of his party took to the streets in anger at his conviction, exploding homemade bombs and clashing with police.
But they were soon overshadowed by thousands of protesters who flooded a major intersection in the capital, Dhaka, upset by what they said was a lenient sentence of life in prison, which actually means just 14 years in Bangladesh. They also were inflamed by the image of Mollah smiling at journalists and holding up two fingers in a “V” sign as he was led from the court, apparently in celebration of his avoiding the death penalty.
Fueled by online posts, the protests grew until hundreds of thousands of people took over the Shahbagh intersection, which they renamed Projonmo Chattar, or New Generation Platform.
Many slept there, collecting donations for food. Others came after work and stayed late into the night, listening to chants for justice over loudspeakers. Some beat drums and wrapped their heads in scarves with slogans saying “We want death for the war criminals” and “Traitors have no place in this land.”
The protesters also called for Jamaat to be banned.
The immensely popular national cricket team came to the site to express solidarity with the protesters, and on Thursday evening, organizers said more than 100,000 candles were lit at the site.
To counter any accusations that the protest was organized by Hasina’s government, politicians were banned from the stage.
“This is a history. A new history is in the making,” said Aminul Islam, a 30-year-old bank employee at the protest site.
“It is unbelievable,” he said. “This is our fight, this is another war, not with rifles in hand, but with an unconditional urge to bringing those to book for killing our people and dishonoring our mothers and sisters.”
Even though many of the protesters had not been born when the war raged, they were still scarred by it and the lack of accountability for those accused of crimes during the fighting, said Hassan Shahriar. To some that lack of accountability was reflected in the fact two members of Jamaat have served as Cabinet ministers.
“Generation after generation have seen no remedy, no punishment for the perpetrators. Rather they have become influential political actors, social actors, and the new generation has been silently frustrated,” he said. “The wounds are still fresh.”
The protesters are also fed up with corruption, nepotism and other perceived injustices and have seized on the tribunals to express their dissatisfaction, he said.
In response to the demonstrations, the government sent a bill to Parliament that would amend the law creating the tribunals, allowing the prosecution to appeal if it felt a sentence handed down was too lenient.
Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said the bill was expected to be passed by Parliament on Sunday, and the government has said it would use it to appeal Mollah’s sentence.
One legal analyst, Shahdeen Malik, said the amendments would strengthen the law, and that the country’s legal system could be counted on to give verdicts based on evidence and not simply in response to street pressure.
But New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the proposed amendments, saying that passing retroactive laws to overturn unpopular verdicts violated the country’s commitments to protect the rights of defendants.
“Convictions of those responsible for the 1971 atrocities is important for the country, but not at the expense of the principles that make Bangladesh a democracy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.