Bangladesh's besieged Islamist party fights for life

Bangladesh's besieged Islamist party fights for life
This July 15, 2013, file photo shows Bangladeshi police escorting Ghulam Azam (centre), 90, the wartime head of the country's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, to a court in Dhaka before he was sentenced to serve a 90 year prison term. Azam died on October 23, 2014.

DHAKA, BANGLADESH - Bangladesh's largest Islamist party faces an existential crisis after a series of body blows, including the sentencing to death of its leaders and abandonment by its main secular ally, say analysts.

While support for radical Islamists has surged in many Muslim majority countries of late, Jamaat-e-Islami has bucked the trend after failing to banish the taint of siding with Pakistan in Bangladesh's 1971 independence war.

And with its spiritual leader having recently died in prison, top officials languishing on death row and a muted response to protest calls, observers say Jamaat itself could be on its last legs.

"Jamaat has no future unless it transforms itself into a new party and finds a new leadership that can effectively mobilise people and shake off its war-time legacy," Dhaka-based analyst Ataur Rahman told AFP.

"The sooner it comes to realise this, the better for the party," added Rahman, a former professor at the State University of New York.

Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have dominated politics since independence, Jamaat has been a kingmaker and served as a junior coalition partner as recently as 2006.

But its growing marginalisation was sealed last year when it was banned from a general election after judges ruled its charter conflicted with the country's secular constitution.

That ruling further inflamed supporters already fuming over the trials of around a dozen leaders accused of war crimes in the 1971 conflict.

Around 500 people were killed in political violence last year, both in the aftermath of war crimes verdicts and the build-up to January's election which the BNP boycotted.

But although Jamaat's mobilisations last year were a show of strength, the subsequent violence alienated the public.

The first verdicts last year saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets. But there was a tepid response to calls for protests and a strike last week issued after Jamaat assistant secretary general Mohammad Kamaruzzaman's appeal against his death sentence was rejected.

The International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court, also sentenced Jamaat's supreme leader Motiur Rahman Nizami and a key financier to death in October.

While the verdicts triggered sporadic violence, it was nothing on the scale of last year.

Shunned by allies

To compound Jamaat's woes, there are now signs the BNP - led by Hasina's arch rival and former premier Khaleda Zia - is turning its back on its one-time partner in government.

The BNP refrained from condemning the recent verdicts, even though one of its own leading lights has been sentenced to hang.

Its failure to offer condolences after the death of Ghulam Azam, Jamaat's 92-year-old spiritual leader who died last month after being convicted of war crimes, underlined the cooling in relations.

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