Bangladesh falls silent for execution of war criminals

DHAKA - Much of Bangladesh fell silent for three minutes on Tuesday as part of a growing mass public campaign to demand the execution of defendants who are being tried for war crimes by a domestic tribunal.

Government offices emptied while shopkeepers closed for business to stand on the sides of the normally bustling streets of Dhaka at 4:00pm (1000 GMT). Similar scenes were repeated in other towns and cities across the country.

Tens of thousands of people stood in silence at one key intersection in central Dhaka, where protesters have been staging demonstrations for the last eight days demanding that war criminals be hanged.

Play in the Bangladesh Premier League was halted as cricketers expressed their solidarity with the protesters.

However rival protests by supporters of an Islamist party whose leaders are on trial over their role in the 1971 independence war against Pakistan turned violent in the Bangladeshi capital.

The editor of the country's biggest-selling daily among the dozens injured while at least two people suffered bullet wounds.

"It was a resounding success. People of every segment, profession and party joined the protest to demand quick execution of the war criminals," said Imran Sarker, an organiser, told AFP.

The demonstrations calling for executions began after the country's war crimes tribunal last week handed down a life sentence to Abdul Quader Molla, the fourth-highest ranked leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party - a term critics condemned as too lenient.

Eight other Jamaat officials, including its head and deputy head and two senior officials of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are also being tried by the tribunal. Most of the cases are at an advanced stage.

Both Jamaat and BNP have labelled the cases "show trials" aimed at barring the leaders from upcoming polls. International rights groups have questioned the proceedings.

During the clashes in Dhaka, protesters hurled home-made bombs and attacked vehicles with bricks as police fought back with rubber bullets and tear gas in the Karwan Bazaar and Motijheel commercial districts.

Police inspector Firoz Ahmed told AFP that a Jamaat supporter was hit by bullet and was undergoing surgery. A woman was also hit by bullet at Karwan Bazaar, the online edition of Prothom Alo said.

A pro-Jamaat newspaper was attacked by unidentified people who torched its ground-floor warehouse, local police chief M Hayatuzzaman said.

Rights groups have questioned the fairness of the hearings, saying the laws and procedures under which the opposition leaders are being tried fall short of international standards.

The trials have in recent weeks triggered deadly protests by Jamaat supporters across the country, leaving at least seven people dead and scores of policemen injured.

The government says the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the nine-month war in which it says three million people were killed, many by pro-Pakistani militia whose members allegedly included Jamaat officials.

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