War crime charges in focus before Bangladesh polls
Fri Oct 26, 2007
By Anis Ahmed
DHAKA (Reuters) - Decades-old allegations of support for Pakistan in its 1971 battle to maintain control of Bangladesh and complicity in war crimes in that conflict are taking on a new life ahead of elections planned for next year.
In line with the "roadmap" of the country's army-backed interim government for the polls expected around the end of 2008, the Election Commission has been talking with major political parties on reform plans that include registration of parties.
The Awami League -- one of Bangladesh's main parties which led the then East Pakistan to independence through the nine-month 1971 war -- has asked the commission not to register any party that sided with or supported the Pakistani army against Bengali nationalists.
Many Bangladeshis charge Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's biggest religion-based political party, with opposing independence from Pakistan in 1971 and complicity with the Pakistani army in killings, rape and other alleged atrocities.
However, since independence Jamaat has steadily rebuilt itself into a strong political force, and was often courted by other parties for support in elections.
Jamaat always denied war crime charges, and on Thursday Jamaat secretary-general Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid said: "Bangladesh has never had any anti-independence elements nor any war criminals."
Mujahid, a minister in the government of former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia, also told reporters after a meeting with the election commissioners that the "demand for not registering any party on religious grounds is illegal and unacceptable".
The Awami League -- the political vehicle of former prime minister Sheikh Hasina -- and its allies want a ban on parties like Jamaat from the coming election.
Acting Awami League chief Zillur Rahman, reacting to Mujahid's comments, said the "whole nation knows what their (Jamaat's) role was during the war, in which three million people were killed and thousands of women lost their chastity."
"The (election commission) must ban them ... should it want to hold a truly free and fair election, and keep the spirit of independence alive."
Jamaat was a key ally in the government of Khaleda, who ended her five-year term in October last year.
The Awami Leage and other critics have also claimed Jamaat harboured Islamist militants linked to a wave of bombings in Bangladesh in late 2005 which killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds, accusations it has denied.
Hasina and Khaleda are currently in jail, awaiting trial for alleged corruption, charges they say are unfounded and politically motivated.
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul)