DHAKA, Bangladesh – An Islamist political party has vowed to deepen the role of Islam in Bangladesh to avenge the execution of a party leader who was hanged for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.
Abdul Quader Mollah, 65, was hanged Thursday night in a case that has exacerbated the explosive political divide in Bangladesh, an impoverished country of 160 million. Mollah was a leader of the party, Jamaat-e-Islami, and a key member of the opposition.
Opponents of Jamaat-e-Islami say it is a fundamentalist group with no place in a secular country. Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim, but is governed by largely secular laws based on British common law.
The execution sparked violent protests Friday as activists torched homes and businesses belonging to government supporters in a fresh wave of bloodshed ahead of elections next month. At least five people died in the violence.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people rejoiced in the streets of the capital, Dhaka, and said justice had been served.
In an editorial, Bangladesh’s English-language Daily Star newspaper congratulated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for trying and executing Mollah “40 long years” after he committed his crimes.
A Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Makbul Ahmed, said in a statement late Thursday that “people would take revenge on this killing by establishing Islam in Bangladesh, which is stained with the blood of Abdul Quader Mollah.”
“I urge all the people who support the cause of the Islamic movement to show utmost patience to build a strong resistance,” Ahmed said.
Jamaat-e-Islami says Mollah’s trial was politically motivated and an attempt to eliminate Islamic parties. Those who support the execution say he was hanged for serious crimes, and that the punishment had nothing to do with Islam.
An analyst said attempts by the government to neutralize Jamaat-e-Islami could backfire, and that the party could become more radicalized despite Hasina’s determination to suppress fundamentalist groups.
“Jamaat-e-Islami as a political party has been in operation for a long time, so it’s natural that it will hit back with what it has in its possession when you hit it in an extreme way,” political analyst Ataur Rahman said.
Mollah was the first person to be hanged for war crimes in Bangladesh under an international tribunal established in 2010 to investigate atrocities stemming from the independence war.
Jamaat-e-Islami activists on Friday attacked ruling party supporters and minority Hindus in parts of Bangladesh, torching their homes and shops. At least five people died in the violence, local TV stations reported. Hindus are believed to be supporters of Hasina.
In Dhaka, Jamaat-e-Islami activists torched at least four cars and a motorcycle near the country’s main railway station, said Shahzadi Sultana, a fire official. Several homemade bombs were detonated during the attack, Somoy TV reported.
Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators including Mollah, killed at least 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war against Pakistan.
The case remains politically volatile because most of those being tried are connected to the country’s opposition. Mollah was a key member of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is barred from taking part in next month’s national elections. But the group is closely tied to the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
The special tribunal convicted Mollah of killing a student and a family of 11, and of aiding Pakistani troops in killing 369 other people during the war. The court had stopped his execution at the last minute Tuesday night — just hours before he was due to be hanged — before rejecting his final appeal.
The execution could complicate an already tense political situation in Bangladesh, where the opposition has carried out violent protests that have left nearly 100 people dead since October, demanding an independent caretaker government to oversee the Jan. 5 general election.
The government has rejected that demand, and an opposition alliance led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia plans to boycott the vote.