2013 Shahbag protests

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2013 Shahbag protests
Shahbag Projonmo Square Uprising Demanding Death Penalty of the War Criminals of 1971 in Bangladesh 32.jpg
Demonstrators in Shahbag in February 2013
Date February 2013
Location Bangladesh (began at Shahbagh Square, Dhaka)
23°44′18″N 90°23′45″E / 23.73833°N 90.39583°E / 23.73833; 90.39583Coordinates: 23°44′18″N 90°23′45″E / 23.73833°N 90.39583°E / 23.73833; 90.39583

The 2013 Shahbag protests, associated with the Shahbag central neighbourhood of Dhaka, Bangladesh, began on 5 February 2013 and later spread to other parts of Bangladesh, and became known as Gonojagaran Mancha (National Awakening Stage; gono means people, jagoron means awakening, and moncho means platform). The people demanded capital punishment for Abdul Quader Mollah, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and for others convicted of war crimes by the International Crimes Tribunal.[5][6] On that day, the International Crimes Tribunal had sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah to life in prison after he was convicted on five of six counts of war crimes.[7][8] Later demands included banning the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party from politics and a boycott of institutions supporting (or affiliated with) the party.[9]

Protesters considered Mollah's sentence too lenient, given his crimes.[10][11] Bloggers and online activists called for additional protests at Shahbag.[12][13] Tens of thousands of people joined the demonstration, which gave rise to protests across the country.[14] By mid-April, their numbers had declined, and the original protest site is now clear.[15]

A counter-protest, demanding release of those accused and convicted, was launched by Jamaat-e-Islami as its leaders were the majority of those first identified for trial. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) initially expressed its support for Jamaat-e-Islami, a principal political ally.[16] But, the BNP cautiously welcomed the Shahbag protest, while warning the government not to make political mileage from a movement demanding capital punishment for war criminals.[17]

During the protests, Ahmed Rajib Haider, a pro-Shahbag blogger, was brutally killed outside his house by machete-wielding youth.[18] On 1 March, five students of North South University were arrested who 'confessed' involvement in Rajib's killing, but they were not Jamaat or Shibir, though independent verification and investigation is not possible at this stage.[19][20] On 27 February 2013, the tribunal convicted Delwar Hossain Sayeedi of war crimes and sentenced him to death. Jamaat followers protested and there were violent clashes with police. About 60 people were killed in the confrontations; most were Jamaat-Shibir activists, and others were police and civilians.[21]

Historical context[edit]

In 1971 Bangladesh was the portion of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan known as East Pakistan. In the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh, East Pakistan fought West Pakistan for nine months. During this period the Indian Army which provided guerrilla training to freedom fighters of Mukti Bahini, joined the war on 3 December 1971 in support of the liberation of East Pakistan. Armed conflict ended on 16 December 1971 through surrender of the Pakistani Armed Forces to India, resulting in the formation of the People's Republic of Bangladesh as a free, secular and independent state.

According to the famous Blood telegram from the United States consulate in Dacca to the State Department, many atrocities had been committed by the Pakistan Army and its supporter Razakars and Al-Badar militia.[22][23][24] Time reported a high-ranking US official as saying, "It is the most incredible, calculated killing since the days of the Nazis in Poland."[25] Estimates are that one to three million people were killed, nearly a quarter of a million women were raped and more than ten million people fled to India to escape persecution.[26][27]

A paramilitary force known as the Razakars was created by the May 1971 Razakar Ordinance promulgated by Tikka Khan, the governor of East Pakistan. The ordinance stipulated the creation of a volunteer force, trained and equipped by the provincial government.[28] Razakar (Bengali: রাজাকার) comes from رضاکار (razākār, the Urdu word for "volunteer"). However, it became a derogatory term in the Bengali language due to the widespread killings of civilians and atrocities committed by the paramilitary during the war. The war criminals, mostly young men, were never brought to trial, since Bangladesh needed to bargain with Pakistan for the return of 200,000 Bengalis stranded in Pakistan at the end of the war.[citation needed]

The majority of East Pakistanis supported the call to create a free and independent Bangladesh during the Liberation War. A small number of Pakistani supporters and members of fundamentalist political parties, particularly Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) and its student wing Islami Chatra Sangha (ICS, Bengali: ইসলামী ছাত্র সঙ্ঘ Islami Chhatro Shônggho), the Muslim League, the Pakistan Democratic Party (PDP) Council and Nejam-e-Islami, collaborated with the Pakistani army to resist the formation of an independent Bangladesh. The students belonging to Islami Chatra Sangha were known as the Al-Badr force; people belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League, Nizam-e-Islami and similar groups were called Al-Shams, and the Urdu-speaking people (generally known as Bihari) were known as Al-Mujahid.[29]

International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) of 2010[edit]

Large white building, with many pillars
Old High Court Building, Dhaka, where the tribunal is taking place

Since 2000, there has been an increasing demand in Bangladesh for justice related to war crimes committed during the 1971 struggle; the issue was central to the 2008 general election.[30][31] The Awami League-led, 14-party Grand Alliance included this issue in its election manifesto.[32] Its rival, four-party alliance (which included the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami) had several leaders alleged to have committed war crimes.[33] The former freedom fighters and sector commanders of the liberation war pleaded with the public not to vote for alleged war criminals in the election.[34]

The Grand Alliance won the election (held on 29 December 2008) with a two-thirds majority, based in part on its promise to prosecute alleged war criminals.[35][36][37] On 29 January 2009 the new Parliament unanimously passed a resolution to prosecute war criminals.[38] The government intended to use the 1973 law: the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act.[39] The government worked to amend the law, updating it and incorporating other nations' experience.[40][41][42] The amendments provided for the trial of individuals and political parties that had worked against the liberation of Bangladesh. The government was empowered to appeal tribunal decisions.[42]

On 25 March 2010, the Awami-led government announced the formation of a three-member tribunal, a seven-member investigation agency, and a twelve-member prosecution team to conduct the trials under the ICT Act 1973.[32][43] The panel of three judges included Fazle Kabir and Zahir Ahmed, with Mohammed Nizamul Huq as chairman.[44] Abdul Matin, Abdur Rahim, Kutubur Rahman, Shamsul Arefin, Mir Shahidul Islam, Nurul Islam and M. Abdur Razzak Khan were appointed to assist the state prosecutors.[45] Golam Arif Tipu was named Chief Prosecutor. Others prosecutors were Syed Rezaur Rahman, Golam Hasnayen, Rana Das Gupta, Zahirul Huq, Nurul Islam Sujan, Syed Haider Ali, Khandaker Abdul Mannan, Mosharraf Hossain Kajal, Ziad Al-Malum, Sanjida Khanom and Sultan Mahmud Semon.[45]


A formal charge was filed by the prosecution against Abdul Quader Mollah on 18 December 2011.[46] He was charged with:[46]

  • The Pallab murder
  • Killing pro-liberation poet Meherunnesa, her mother and two brothers
  • The Khandoker Abu Taleb killing
  • The Ghatar Char and Bhawal Khan Bari killings
  • The Alubdi mass killing (344 people)
  • The rape and murder of Hazrat Ali and his family

On 5 February 2013, the ICT found Mollah guilty of crimes against humanity.[7][47] He was sentenced to life imprisonment for the Alubdi and Ali killings and 15 years each for the Pallab, Meherunnesa and Taleb murders.[46] The day before the verdict was announced, Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamist political party (of which Mollah is a leader), announced a nationwide dawn-to-dusk general strike for 5 February in protest of their leader's conviction.[48][49]

Many citizens (especially young people) were outraged that, given his crimes, Mollah was sentenced to life imprisonment rather than death.[10][11] The verdict was criticised in social media, and a peaceful demonstration began at Shahbagh Square in Dhaka.[50]

Protesters' demands[edit]

Over several days, protesters increased their demands, asking for:

  • Death penalty for Mollah[1][51][52]
  • Death sentence for those convicted of war crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal[53][54][55]
  • A ban of Jamaat from Bangladeshi politics[2][3]
  • A boycott of Jamaat institutions[56]

Oath of Shahbag Square movement[edit]

We swear an oath that the leadership of the mass of people from the Gonojagaran Mancha (National Awakening Stage) will continue the movement from Teknaf to Tetulia until capital punishment is handed down to those Razakar and Al-Badr members who committed crimes against humanity like mass killing and rape in 1971. We take the oath that we will remain vocal, both on the streets and online, until the politics of the war criminals, Jamaat and Shibir, is banned and the citizenship of their members cancelled. We further take the oath that we will continue this demonstration and keep demanding trials, under a special tribunal, of those Razakars and Al-Badr activists who were convicted, and under trial, but freed after 1975. We swear that we will boycott the war criminals' business entities – Islami Bank, Ibn Sina, Focus, Retina and various other coaching centres. We know through these they collect money to continue with their anti-liberation activities. We will also boycott the academic and cultural organisations through which they are spreading anti-liberation sentiments among the children. In brief, we will work for banning all the business, social and cultural organisations belonging to Razakars and Al-Badr activists. We swear that we will continue with our demand for stringent punishment of Jamaat and Shibir, who have committed crimes of sedition by threatening civil war, after making their immediate arrest by recognising them through video footage of news and newspaper pictures. We swear that we will boycott war criminals' mass media like Diganta Television, Daily Naya Diganta, Amar Desh, The Daily Sangram, Sonar Bangla Blog. We will not subscribe to the newspapers of the war criminals at any office or house. At the same time, we request the pro-liberation mass media to boycott the war criminals and their accomplices.[57]



Protest began right after the verdict was announced. Student organisations started the protest immediately after the Judgement in the Shahbag square that was the actual call for people to gather in the Shahbag square within half an hour of the Judgement. It took half an hour to spread out the call for protest through different social media and later the satellite TV channels. BOAN and some other social and cultural organisations called for different programmes in the same venue who later worked together.[58] Demonstrators gathered at Shahbag Circle (or Projonmo Chottor); they painted murals on the road, drew cartoons, hanged effigies of war-crimes suspects and chanted slogans, with a vow to continue demonstrating until their demands were met.

Protesters at night, chanting and holding torches
Protesters at Shahbag Square

On 7 February, demonstrations began at 8 am. Thousands of people gathered with banners, posters, Bangladeshi flags and placards in Shahbag with their demands.[59] On Friday afternoon, a mass rally was held at Shahbag with an estimated attendance of more than 100,000.[60]

On 12 February, protesters observed three minutes of silence at 4 pm at Shahbag and all across Bangladesh.[61] In Dhaka, traffic was stopped as thousands of people took to the streets, formed human chains and stood in silence. A Bangladesh Premier League game at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium halted for three minutes, as players and supporters observed the silence. Parliamentarians and the police also joined the protest.[62] Bengali singer Kabir Suman wrote a song entitled "Tin Minit" ("Three Minutes") in honour of the silent protest.[63][64]

Further developments[edit]

On 21 February, International Mother Language Day, the number of protesters reached a new high. Its leadership declared 26 March 2013, the Independence Day of Bangladesh, as the deadline for the government to ban Jamaat-e-Islami from politics.[65]

The government did not ban Jamaat-e-Islam from politics after the deadline was over. Seven protesters calling themselves the Shaheed Rumi Squad began a fast until death on 26 March at 10:30 pm in front of the National Museum, protesting "inadequate government action" to ban Jamaat in response to the Shahbagh protesters' ultimatum.[66] The fasters said at a press briefing that they would send an open letter to Prime Minister Hasina during the 100th hour of their protests.[67] More than 100 organisations expressed solidarity with the hunger strikers.[68]

Sentencing of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi[edit]

On 28 February the International Crimes Tribunal sentenced Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Nayeb-e-Ameer (vice-president) of Jamaat-e-Islami,[69] to death for convictions on 8 out of 20 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.[70] The protesters celebrated the sentence.[71] "This verdict is a victory for the people", declared spokesperson of the organizers Imran H. Sarker.[71] Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said, "It's a victory day, it's a day of joy. Through this verdict, the nation is seeing the resurgence of liberation war spirits."[72] Sayeedi was the most senior official convicted by the tribunal, and the third person overall.[73]


Jamaat followers were enraged by the decision, claiming that the case against Sayeedi was politically motivated. His lawyer, Abdur Razzaq, accused authorities of preventing a key witness from testifying and intentionally slanting the process.[71] "This is a perverse judgment. It is inconceivable that a court of law awarded him a conviction. This prosecution was for a political purpose", Razzaq said.[71] Jamaat quickly called for a nationwide two-day strike, to start on 3 March.[72] By afternoon, violence led by Jamaat-e-Islami supporters had erupted across Bangladesh.[71] "The Jamaat-e-Islami is fighting for its political survival", said a spokesperson.[72] By the end of the day thirty-five people were dead, including three police officers;[72] an additional eight hundred were injured.[72] According to the BBC, it marked "the worst day of political violence in Bangladesh in decades".[73]

Clashes between police and Jamaat-e-Islami workers continued on 1 March, spreading to the northern districts of Gaibandha and Chapai Nawabganj.[73] Opposition leader Khaleda Zia criticised government "brutality" and Jamaat called for a demonstration in the capital, Dhaka. Security measures were increased to prevent the situation from escalating.[73] The death toll rose to forty-four (including six policemen).[71] Former prime minister and BNP member Khaleda Zia declared a nationwide dawn-to-dusk hartal for 5 March, and called for countrywide rallies on 2 March to protest what she called government corruption, misrule, oppression, and "mass killings".[74]

Violent conflict continued on 2 March, with another four deaths and hundreds of injuries.[74] In Chittangong district police opened fire on Jamaat-e-Islami protesters, leading to three deaths.[74] In Nilphamari, a young person died in a clash between protestors and police.[74]

On 3 March, violence continued as the Jamaat-organized strike began. In Bogra Jamaat supporters attacked police outposts with sticks and homemade bombs, leading to at least eight deaths.[21] In Godagari two deaths were reported in a similar incident,[21] and three deaths were reported in the Joypurhat district.[21] Violence continued in Chittangong as well, where Jamaat claimed that police opened fire without provocation. The government denied the charge, saying that violence against citizens and police would not be tolerated; three deaths were reported.[21] "People in the street are very, very afraid of Jamaat-e-Islam. I am scared", reported an eyewitness in Dhaka.[21] Jamaat supporters singled out Hindu citizens, attacked their homes in many parts of the country, and torched Hindu temples.[75][76][77][78] More than 40 temples and many statues were destroyed and scores of houses set ablaze, leaving hundreds of people homeless throughout the country.

Amnesty International has urged the Bangladeshi government to provide better protection for minority Hindus. Abbas Faiz, the organisation's Bangladesh researcher, has noted that the attacks on the Hindu community were predicted and it was shocking that people were attacked because of their religion.[79][80] Attacks on Hindu communities had been widespread during the 1971 war.

On 5 May, Hefazot-e-Islam protesters, aided by Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and its youth wing Chatra Shibir, did violent protest activities in Dhaka that included arson, vandalism and burning of books.[81][82] The protesters from Hifazat-e-Islam fought with police. Later, the government indicated an official death toll of 11. However, a grave digger said he had counted 14 bodies with beards.[83]


Domestic response[edit]

Large crowd (mostly male) with banners in street
Protest in front of Chittagong Press Club

The Shahbag protest has attracted people from all social strata to its cause.[6] The Shahbag intersection at the center of the protests has been referred to as "Generation Circle" (Bengali: প্রজন্ম চত্ত্বর Projônmo Chôttor) or "Shahbag Square", in a nod to the events which unfolded in Tahrir Square, Cairo.[1] The protest spread from Shahbag to other parts of the country, with sit-ins and demonstrations in Chittagong, Sylhet, Barisal, Mymensingh, Khulna, Rajbari, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Comilla, Bogra, Narayanganj, Sunamganj, Noakhali and Narsingdi.[84][85][86][87]

a participant, Amiruddin Ahmed remarked, "After coming here I have realised that the national flag is secure at the hands of our children". Members of the 1971 "Golden Generation" found fresh inspiration in Projônmo Chôttor.[88] Writer Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, noting the large youth participation, said, "I am here to offer my apology to you. I wrote in newspapers that the new generation only hits 'Like' on Facebook and writes on blogs, but does not take to the streets. You have proved me wrong and I thank you all for this".[89][90] Dhaka University Vice-Chancellor Arefin Siddique said, "Today is a movement to make the country free from razakars. The country needs to be freed from razakars‍ '​ hands. Capital punishment of the razakars is a demand of the country's 160 million people".[91] Jahangirnagar University Vice-Chancellor M. Anwar Hossain said, "The people of Bangladesh have rejected the verdict. At Projonmo Chottor, we join our hands to make a clear statement, to give a call to all countrymen to unite and oust the anti-liberation forces from the soil".[91]

Political response[edit]

State Minister for Law, Quamrul Islam, said that the verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah could have been different if people had taken to the streets sooner.[92] The government is planning to file appeals with the Supreme Court contesting the sentence for Mollah.[93] On 11 February the Cabinet approved proposed amendments to the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973, introducing a provision for plaintiffs to appeal verdicts handed down by the tribunal. This amendment, if passed, would enable the state to appeal Mollah's life sentence.[94]

Jamaat-e-Islami, which was already staging protests against the impending trial of its leaders, called for a general strike.[95] Jamaat continues to demand that the international war crimes tribunal be stopped and its party leaders freed. Jamaat supporters had staged nationwide demonstrations with increasing frequency from November 2012 to February 2013, demanding the release of its leaders.[96][97] Actions included firing gunshots, smashing and setting fire to vehicles and detonating homemade bombs.[98][99][100][101] Violence was targeted at police stationed in the capital, Dhaka, and major cities such as Rajshahi,[101] Cox's Bazar,[102] Chittagong,[103] Rangpur,[104] Dinajpur[105] and Khulna.[106][107] Several Jamaat-Shibir activists were arrested during the strikes and confrontations with police.[103][106]

Reaction from Bangladeshis abroad[edit]

Semicircle of demonstrators holding candlelight vigil
Shahbag protest supporters in Stuttgart

Bangladeshis abroad have expressed solidarity with the protestors through social media websites Facebook and Twitter.[50] Demonstrations of solidarity have also taken place in Australia,[108] Malaysia,[109] Thailand,[110] Germany,[111] and the United States.

Bangladeshis in New York City joined in a symbolic protest on 9 February at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights.[112] A mass sit-in was organised by the Bangladeshi community in Sydney on 10 February at the International Mother Language Monument in Sydney Ashfield Park.[113] At a rally at the Angel Statue in Melbourne, demonstrators signed a petition to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina demanding death for war criminals.[114] Bangladeshis in Taiwan also expressed their solidarity with the Shahbag protests on 10 February.[citation needed]

On 10 February, Bangladeshi students gathered at Rutgers University in New Jersey to express solidarity with the Shahbag protests. Bangladeshi residents joined the students to express their support.[citation needed] Bangladeshi students at the University of Delaware and nearby residents demonstrated their solidarity with the Shahbag movement on 15 February at a busy intersection in Newark, Delaware. A candlelight vigil was held that evening for Rajib, a blogger and activist who was killed several hours before the demonstration.[115]

In London, protesters at Altab Ali Park in solidarity for Shahbag were attacked by Jamaat-e-Islami supporters. Protests are held at the park every week by both sides.[116]

International response[edit]

On 18 February British Foreign Office minister Sayeeda Warsi hailed the Shahbagh Square protests, describing them as peaceful, productive and non-violent.[117][118] An article in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs by Suzannah Linton on 27 February expressed concern about "bloodlust in Bangladesh" and called on the international community to steer the process towards international standards.[119]

Media coverage[edit]


While most media outlets followed the protests from the start, some pro-Jamaat-e-Islami news outlets reported them as a "well-orchestrated play made by the government".[citation needed] In Sreemangal, Moulvibazar cable operators in solidarity with the protests have stopped broadcasting the pro-Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami television channel Diganta Television.[120]


Protester in a crowd holding up English-language poster
Protester showing placard to foreign media

The BBC,[121] CNN,[122] Yahoo! News,[123] Reuters,[84] Al Jazeera,[124] The New York Times,[125] The Independent[126] and others have published stories on the protests; BBC Bangla has been closely following the events.[127][128] Reuters photographer Andrew Biraj published "live" photos of mass demonstrations at Shahbag.[129]

Social media[edit]


Facebook, the most popular social-networking site in Bangladesh, has played an important role in spreading news worldwide about events at Shahbag.[130][131] A Facebook event was created calling for a protest at Shahbag; the human chain which went viral on 5 February 2013.[132] Facebook continues to be the main source of information about Shahbag protests.[130][131]


Bangladeshis used the Twitter hashtag #shahbag to provide live updates of the movement.[133][134]


On 11 December 2013 demand for quick execution of 'Butcher' Molla'
On 11 December 2013 demand for quick execution of 'Butcher' Molla'

The demonstration put pressure on the government to amend the International Crimes Tribunal Act so war criminals "can be swiftly executed if convicted".[135] The cabinet also set a 60-day limit for the Supreme Court's Appellate Division to rule on appeals, to keep the cases moving. This means that those who have been convicted and sentenced to death could be executed this year if their verdicts survive appeal.[135] In response to popular protests, Jute and Textiles Minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui said on 12 February that a bill is being drafted to ban Jamaat-e-Islami from Bangladeshi politics.[136]

On 17 September 2013, Bangladesh Supreme Court found Abdul Quader Molla guilty of murders and other war crimes and ordered his execution, converting his life sentence to death sentence.[137]

Finally on 12 December 2013 Bangladesh executed this war criminal


In Bangladesh
Protesters at night, with torches
Protesters in Shahbag 
Seated protesters, holding placards
Placards with demands 
Aerial photo of large, nighttime demonstration
Candlelight vigil 
Displaying shoes gor war criminals
Displaying shoes gor war criminals 
Outside Bangladesh
Students holding placards in front of "Queen's University" sign
Students at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada 
Students holding placards in front of "Texas Tech University" sign
Students at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, United States 
Bangladeshis of all ages holding signs in front of a tree
Bangladeshis in New Zealand 
Bangladeshis of all ages holding signs in a Park in Taiwan
Bangladeshis in Taipei, Taiwan 
People holding signs on steps of large building
Demonstrators in Helsinki, Finland 

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]