Friday, September 27, 2013

Politics and the Molla execution

Putting to one side, for one moment, the appropriateness or otherwise of the decision made by the appellate division to impose a death sentence on Quader Molla (also see this), it is interesting to consider the political context in which the government now has to decide when or if to carry out the execution.

There are two opinion polls this year that provide some information about the mood of the country in relation to the trials and demands for execution.

The first was undertaken by Org-Quest Research Limited who were commissioned by the country's number one Bengali language newspaper, Prothom Alo. It was never published - apparently because it was considered too sensitive.

3000 people were interviewed by phone between 8-15 Feb 2013 on issues relating to the conviction and sentence of imprisonment of the Jamaat-e-Islami leader Quader Molla for war crimes committed during the 1971 war. The questioning took place in the days immediately after the verdict and when the Shahbag movement - which was vehemently seeking the death penalty - was it its height. The estimated margin of error in this poll was said to be +/- 1.7 percent.

Amongst respondents who knew about the ruling (86% of the total) were asked whether they were satisfied with the ruling 59% said that they were dissatisfied and 40 percent said they were satisfied. 1 percent refused to answer.

When the unsatisfied respondents were asked what should have been the fair verdict, the 43% favored the death penalty, 9% expected acquittal and 6% thought anything less than life imprisonment would have been the fair verdict.

In summary, this means that 43% supported the demand that Molla be given the death penalty and 55% were against it, (supporting either life imprisonment, a shorter level of imprisonment or acquittal). 2% had refused to answer.

When the results were considered in terms of whether they lives - 63% of urban residents compared with 37 percent of those living in rural areas supported the sentence of hanging.

This would suggest that there a death penalty decision is not widely popular in Bangladesh, though a significant minority do support it

The second opinion poll was undertaken by Nielsen/Democracy International in April 2013 - subsequent not only to Molla's verdict and the pro-hanging Shahbag protests but also the ICT ruling imposing a death penalty against Sayedee.

This poll involved the face to face interviewing of 2510 randomly selected people throughout Bangladesh, and had margin of error of +/- 2%.

Of those who knew about the tribunal (92%) 86% wanted the trials to proceed.

When those who knew about the tribunals were asked about the fairness of the process, 63% thought that the trials were unfair or very unfair and 31% though they were fair.

Those who thought that the trials were not fair divided into 41% who stated that were simply 'unfair' and 22% who that the trials were ‘very’ unfair.

The poll also found that only 25% of people thought that BNP supported 'war criminals'

In relation to Shahbag, the poll found that 66 per cent of those questioned knew about the Shahbagh protests and out of this number, 69 per cent thought that the ‘reason’ why the protesters were at Shahbagh was to ‘demand justice/capital punishment.’

However, when those voters who knew about the protests were asked about the extent to which ‘most of your friends and family’ supported or were against the movement, the poll found that only 31 per cent supported/highly supported it (of which 13 per cent ‘highly’ supported it) and that 51 per cent thought that their friends and family were against/highly against it (21 per cent being ‘highly’ against).

This second poll therefore suggests that there is a level of deep ambivalence in Bangladesh towards the war crimes trials; whilst the support the idea of trials, most people see the actual proceedings as unfair - though the polls do not examine exactly what people mean by 'unfair (it could mean unfair to the prosecutors, not just unfair to the accused!). Whilst the majority opinion against Shahbag might not only be a vote against Shahbag's demand for the death penalty, it is likely that it does reflect at least to some extent opposition to the death penalty since that was the protestors main demand.

So where does that leave us with the issue of the execution of Molla. 

Taking these polls into account, my view is that Molla's execution will not be a big vote winner for the AL, and amongst certain sections of society in Bangladesh could well turn people off the party (though these people are probably not sympathetic to the party already)

If the government does try to execute Molla in haste, for example without providing a right to review the decision, this could certainly increase the perception of unfairness, that might filter through to opposition to the governing party.

At the same time, Molla's execution will be popular amongst the AL party's base, and a failure to carry out the execution (unless of course something happened clearly beyond the party's control of course) would create significant problems for the party, with the party leadership coming under significant criticism from within.

Probably, looking at the issue in totally political terms, for the Awami League, failure to execute Molla would probably do them more harm than good.

The opposition BNP is being extremely quiet about the tribunals at present - it has not criticised the death penalty as such, but has focused on urging the government to allow the defence to undertake a review by the appellate division. It seems there is little political mileage in the BNP taking up the issue one way or the other.

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