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Bangladesh execution of opposition leader hints at deeper woes

The execution could add to the violence already rocking the country ahead of January elections.

Bangladesh today executed Islamist politician Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior opposition leader found guilty of committing war crimes during the country’s separation from Pakistan in 1971.

Security analysts fear the execution will trigger violence and impact elections in early January, which the opposition is threatening to boycott. 

Mr. Mollah is the first person to be executed following a controversial war crimes tribunal established in 2010 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The tribunal has so far only tried and convicted members of opposition parties, who claim they are targeted for political reasons.

Mollah was convicted of killing a student and a family of 11, and aiding the Pakistan army in killing 369 others, in a process that diplomats and international rights organizations have condemned.

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Tight security measures are in force across Dhaka and elsewhere in the country in response to the execution, with a heavy deployment of police, paramilitary troops, and border guards.

“The country is on a razor’s edge at the moment with pre-election tensions running high and almost non-stop street protests. Mollah’s execution could trigger more violence, with the Hindu community bearing the brunt,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International‘s Bangladesh researcher in a statement after the execution.

Opponents of Mollah, who call him the “butcher of Mirpur,” celebrated the execution in Dhaka. “The execution was important to clear the frustration that developed among people” who were waiting for the verdict to be implemented, says Imran Sarkar, a leader of the youth movement that protested a more lenient first conviction against Mollah earlier this year. 

The execution comes at a particularly tense moment for Bangladesh. Clashes between political parties have increased in the run-up to Jan. 5. elections. At least 60 people have been killed in Bangladesh since October, and hundreds injured in fierce clashes with the police. A bus packed with passengers was burned earlier in November during a blockade called by the main political opposition party, resulting in one death. The opposition alliances have led multiple blockades to cut off roads, rail, and water to Dhaka in protest over the government’s plans to oversee the elections.

Much drama unfolded in the days before the execution, including a last-minute legal challenge that temporarily delayed the execution on Tuesday and international concerns over the ongoing political turmoil in the south Asian nation.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Tuesday to “speak about the current events,” said Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the US Department of State. 

Mollah’s political party Jamaat-e-Islami Tuesday warned of dire consequences if the execution was carried out and called for a general strike Sunday. This will mean a further blow to suppliers producing clothes for major Western retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gap, Sears, Eddie Bauer and many others. Repeated blockades and shutdowns since October have delayed several shipments of clothes, which generate 80 percent of Bangladesh’s export revenue.

“This execution [will] create a lot of emotional outburst among people who might think that [the governing party] is actually using the execution to create a serious anarchy and then use this to impose emergency or impose a one-sided election,” says M. Shahiduzzaman, a security analyst and a professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka.

Mollah was one of five people who were sentenced to death by the Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal since February. International rights organizations including New York-based Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International condemned the death penalties and raised questions about the fairness of the trials.

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Bangladeshi authorities claim that 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women were raped in a bloody war with Pakistan aided by local collaborators. Independent estimates put the death toll between 300,000 and 500,000, mostly at the hands of pro-Pakistan Islamist militia.