In Dhaka the other day, I saw children dancing in the streets, swinging nooses like festive streamers.
Bangladesh, a country of 160 million, is currently experiencing a "Bengal Spring." Hundreds of thousands of young people have responded to text messages and online bloggers and gathered nightly in Shahbag square in downtown Dhaka and elsewhere around the country. Their demand is that Abdul Kader Mullah, a leader of the Islamic political party Jamaat-I-Islami, be hanged.
Four decades after the "war of liberation" from Pakistan in 1971, ending in the birth of Bangladesh, the government has set up a special war-crimes tribunal to prosecute sympathizers with Pakistan who committed "crimes against humanity." The tribunal has found Mr. Mullah guilty, as a young student political leader, of committing serious crimes that warranted life imprisonment. Rather than accept Mr. Mullah's sentence as justice too-long delayed, the crowds demand his execution.
After four days of Shahbag demonstrations, Prime Minister Sheik Hasina pledged to pursue a death sentence, only to discover that the legislation establishing the tribunal allows the government to appeal a verdict, but not a sentence. The problem has been solved: the government will amend the legislation to enable an appeal of the verdict to the Supreme Court. Few doubt that Mr. Mullah will hang.
The Bengal Spring raises key ethical issues in the prosecution of war crimes, in defining the rule of law and the nature of democracy itself.
Since independence, a combination of political crises and religious conservatism blocked the prosecution of Mr. Mullah and other Jamaat leaders. In 1975, the first prime minister, the secular and socialist Sheikh Mujib, was assassinated. That government was followed by the military dictatorship of General Zia Rahman, who in turn was assassinated. Finally, in 1990, the army retired to the cantonment. A hotly contested election in 1991 pitted the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) headed by Gen. Zia's widow (in an alliance with Jamaat), against the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina.
For two decades these two women have dominated Bangladeshi politics, effectively sustaining the bitter hostilities of 1971. Each has enjoyed two terms in office, each one dogged by corruption, which prompted the most recent military intervention in 2007. Finally, in 2008 Sheikh Hasina won a resounding majority and proceeded with war-crime trials.
That her government in 2009 created a domestically controlled war-crimes tribunal rather than engage the International Criminal Court reflects the country's suspicion of the West. Conveniently for the government, virtually all those prosecuted have affiliations with either Jamaat or the BNP – the two opposition parties.
Inexperienced judges and lawyers have led international observers (most notably The Economist) to question the integrity of the process. Still, despite procedural flaws, the trials have not been outright "drumhead justice." The second verdict, Mr. Mullah's, displayed a certain judicial desire for reconciliation. He received life imprisonment. Then he flashed a "V" sign as he left the courtroom – a bad move. Protests by elderly intellectuals began, but it took the bloggers to put thousands into the street.
One might expect to hear a lawyer or a human-rights activist object to retroactively changing the law in order to please the street. So far there has been silence, though in fairness events have moved quickly and unexpectedly.
What of the tribunal judges themselves? They clearly have limited independence. This appears to be a war-crimes tribunal that can issue only one verdict, guilty, and one sentence, death.
Bangladeshi political culture places great faith in mass protests, the tactic that Gandhi invented to end the British raj, and that Sheikh Mujib copied leading up to 1971. For forty years, all parties have relied on violent street demonstrations. The parliament plays a marginal role. On the one hand, the youthful composition of the crowds in Shahbag and their determination not to be suborned by any political party symbolize a refreshing rejection of politics as usual. On the other hand, their demand – death for those who fought with the Pakistani army – is a continuation of the politics of violent confrontation.
The media have proclaimed the rebirth of the "Spirit of 1971." The movement must be welcomed if it leads to a more liberal and less violent polity. But will it? Will it go beyond settling old scores?
And herein lies the dilemma. The new leadership of bloggers and youth in Shahbag have not been calling with anywhere near as much fervor for safer conditions for garment workers, better schools, better health care, less corruption; rather, they have committed themselves to inflict deadly vengeance upon the old men of Jamaat.
A youth movement seeking death sentences regardless of the law carries within itself the germ of their parents' politics. It is Lord of the Flies writ large. The goal should be to move beyond a four-decade-old civil war towards genuine democratic reform within the rule of law. Put away the noose.
Owen Lippert lives in Dhaka where he has served as head of two US AID democracy projects. He was senior policy adviser to the CIDA minister in 2007-08