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Blogger's death rekindles anti-Islamist protests in Bangladesh

Feb. 16, 2013 3:01 A.M. (Updated: Feb. 16, 2013 3:01 A.M.)
DHAKA (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of 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 denounce 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 organizing the demonstrations and wrote a blog devoted to them. He was attacked outside his home on Friday night after returning from a 100,000-strong rally in Shahbag Square.

Haider's family told reporters he was stabbed to death for standing up to Islamists and drawing people to the protests. Police said they had detained five suspects.

By mid-afternoon, some 50,000 had massed on Shahbag square. More than twice that number were expected later, with Haider's body expected to brought to the square for funeral prayers.

"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.

The protests were triggered by the life sentence imposed on Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, 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 convicted of committing crimes during the war.

Parliament considers amendments

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 Prime Minister Sheikh 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.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party 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.

Police on Friday shot dead three Islamist activists in the southeastern tourist town of Cox's Bazar who were protesting against their leaders' convictions for war crimes.

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.
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