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Bangladesh: Islamist leader AKM Yusuf arrested on war crimes

NEW DELHI, India — Bangladesh police have arrested the leader of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami in the capital of Dhaka Sunday on charges of war crimes, police said.

AKM Yusuf was charged with 15 crimes dating back to Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan, including genocide, killing, looting, arson and forcing members of minority faiths to convert to Islam, Reuters reported.

Police allege the 87-year-old is the founder of the infamous Razakar Bahini, who were notorious for their operations that targeted Hindus as well as civilians suspected of being sympathetic towards Bengali nationalists.

“The arrest of Mr. Yusuf sends a clear signal that the government has no intention of backing down on the war crimes trials,” Anis Ahmed, publisher of the Dhaka Tribune, told GlobalPost.

“The government probably feels more confident about Jamaat’s ability to push back in any extra-democratic manner after its strong handling of the recent attempted occupation of Dhaka’s commercial center by an Islamist coalition,” he added. “More strikes and even sporadic clashes remain a distinct possibility, but it seems unlikely that the government or the courts will relent in their pursuit of justice for war crimes.”

At a bail hearing Monday, his defence team argued that Yusuf should be granted bail immediately because of his old age, the BBC reported.

They also said Yusuf was innocent and being held illegally. Prosecutors opposed the bail application, submitting that Yusuf had remained politically active despite his advancing years and should remain in jail to prevent him from influencing trial proceedings.

A judge reserved his decision on the bail application until Tuesday. His arrest follows the sentencing to death last week of another Islamist party leader, Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, for wartime atrocities, The Guardian reported.

The war crimes trials have sparked a street battle for the soul of Bangladesh. The hard-line, Islamist supporters of the Jamaat have sought to use violence to force Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s secular government to abandon the prosecution — and hence assert the primacy of fundamentalist Islam in the rapidly changing country.

Meanwhile, an amorphous and spontaneous “Shahbagh youth movement” — so named for the Shahbagh neighborhood of Dhaka from which it launched — has shown that a substantial portion of the population, perhaps even a majority, is prepared to fight back against the Islamization of the country.

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