DHAKA (Reuters) - More than 100,000 Bangladeshi protesters, angered by the killing of one of their leaders, poured back onto the streets of the capital on Saturday to demand the death penalty for those found guilty of war crimes in the 1971 independence conflict.
The demonstrators, who denounced a life sentence handed down this month on an Islamist leader involved in the war, reversed a decision to scale back demonstrations, now in their 12th day.
Rajib Haider, an architect, was a key figure in organising the demonstrations and wrote a blog devoted to them under the pen name Thaba baba. He was attacked outside his home on Friday night after returning from a 100,000-strong rally in Shahbag Square.
On Saturday, an even larger crowd thronged the square to attend funeral prayers for Haider, many vowing to avenge his death or breaking down in tears as his coffin passed.
Haider’s family told reporters they believed he was stabbed to death for standing up to the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party and drawing people to the protests. Police said they had detained five suspects.
“Haider’s death has rekindled our spirits,” said Nasiruddin Yusuf, a film-maker. “It will not go in vain.”
Large protests gripped other cities. Security forces patrolled streets in much greater numbers than in previous days.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Haider’s home and told his grieving parents justice would be done.
“Rajib Haider’s killers have no right to do politics,” she said in comments broadcast live on television. She said Jamaat and its affiliates “do not believe in democracy. They believe in terrorism. That is what they are proving again.”
The protests were triggered by the life sentence imposed on Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary-general of Jamaat, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party. Most Bangladeshis had expected a death sentence on charges of murder, rape and torture.
Protest leaders vowed to remain on the street until Mollah, 64, is sentenced to death, along with others convcted of committing crimes during the war.
Some say they would accept parliamentary amendments to provide for stiffer penalties to be issued by the war crimes tribunal, set up in 2010 by Hasina, daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
“The young generation is shining a light on the spirit of the liberation war we fought more than 40 years ago,” said Dhaka University professor Abul Barakat, 58. “We couldn’t achieve all the dreams of the war. Now, perhaps no one can stop them.”
In its first verdict last month, the tribunal sentenced a former Jamaat leader, Abul Kalam Azad, to death. Azad was tried in absentia as he fled the country last April.
State minister for law Qamrul Islam, shown on television addressing a rally near Dhaka, said the disbanding of Jamaat “is a public demand. It’s just a matter of time when Jamaat will be banned from politics.”
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Hasina’s arch rival, former premier Begum Khaleda Zia, says the prime minister is using the tribunal as a political weapon. Hasina denies the accusation.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British rule in 1947 but broke away in 1971 after a war between Bangladeshi nationalists, backed by India, and Pakistani forces. Three million people died and thousands of women were raped.
Some factions in what was then East Pakistan opposed the break with Pakistan. Jamaat denies accusations that it opposed independence and helped the Pakistani army.
Reporting by Anis Ahmed and Serajul Quadir; Editing by Ron Popeski