President Mukherjee reaches Dhaka amid violence, 15 more killed

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The President of India Pranab Mukherjee with the President of Bangladesh Zillur Rahman during his ceremonial arrival at Hazarat Shahjalal International Airport, Dhaka Bangladesh on 3 March 2013. RB-Photo by Samar Mondol Ram Avtar.

Dhaka, Mar 3 (PTI):  Bangladesh today rolled out the red carpet for President Pranab Mukherjee who arrived here today on a three-day state visit to boost bilateral ties amidst a general strike by fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami to protest the conviction of its three top leaders for 1971 war crimes.

In an apparent fall-out of the domestic political standoff over war crimes trial and consequent violence, opposition leader and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia cancelled her meeting with Mukherjee that was scheduled for tomorrow, casting a shadow on the President’s maiden foreign visit since taking over the highest constitutional post seven months ago.

BNP, which called a countrywide shutdown on Tuesday, the concluding day of Mukherjee’s visit, cited no reason officially to call off Zia’s meeting with the President. BNP was understood to have conveyed her inability to meet Mukherjee a couple of days ago.

Interestingly, Khaleda had met Mukherjee in New Delhi in November last year on the concluding day of her nine-day visit to India.

As Mukherjee began his visit, at least 14 people, including three women and a policeman, were killed fresh violence rocked the first day of the strike called by Jamaat in four districts of Bogra, Joypurhat, Jhenaidah and Rajshahi districts.

Mukherjee, who arrived here on an Air India One flight, was received by Bangladesh President Mohammad Zillur Rahman at the VVIP lounge of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. A galaxy of senior ministers of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet were also present.

Mukherjee was given a ceremonial reception at the airport including a 21-gun salute, after which he inspected the guard of honour by the three services of Bangladesh defence forces.

The visit by Mukherjee and his wife Suvra Mukherjee is invested with a lot of symbolism and takes place in the backdrop of spiralling violence by Jamaat-e-Islami, whose three top leaders have been convicted by international war crimes tribunal of genocide, rape and crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971.

Soon after his arrival, Mukherjee flew by a chopper to the national memorial at Savar, near Dhaka, and paid floral tributes to those who laid down their lives for the liberation of Bangladesh.

In his remarks in the Visitors’ Book at Savar, Mukherjee wrote “the National Martyrs’ Memorial symbolises Bangladesh’s struggle for justice, emancipation and independence”.

“It reminds us of the valiant sacrifices made by innumerable men, women and children who fought for their homeland — Sonar Bangla,” wrote Mukherjee.

By itself, Mukherjee’s visit to Savar would pass off as the usual curtain-raiser to any foreign dignitary visit to Bangladesh but its significance in the present circumstances, when there is renewed focus on the spirit and values symbolised by Bangladesh liberation war.

Sayedee, Jammat Vice President, was the third man to be convicted by the domestic war crimes tribunal for setting afire 25 houses in a Hindu village, and abetting the killing of two persons, including a Hindu.

It is in this backdrop that the visit by the President rides high on symbolism especially when Mukherjee receives Bangladeshs highest award from his Bangladeshi counterpart Zillur Rahman on March 4 for his contribution to the independence of the country.

The visit takes place at a time when the trial of the Islamists for the crimes they committed during the liberation war of Bangladesh triggered a popular upsurge at Shahbagh Square against religious fundamentalism in the neighbouring country. New Delhi has already voiced its support for the agitation.

At least 15 people were killed today in fresh violence in Bangladesh over death sentence given to a top leader of fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami for “crimes against humanity” during the 1971 liberation war, taking the death toll to 65.

Violence broke out on Thursday after 73-year-old Delwar Hossain Sayedee, vice-president of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), was sentenced to death by International Crimes Tribunal.

The two-day strike called by Jamaat coincides with President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit as does another shutdown called by the fundamentalist outfit’s alliance partner and main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia on the last day of the visit on March 5.

Jamaat activists overnight torched a train and attacked several police installations in northwestern Bangladesh as they enforced a nationwide 48-hour stoppage to halt ongoing trial of their leaders.

Authorities called army troops in north-western Bogra where seven people were killed in shootouts after the JI activists attacked a police station with homemade bombs and guns at the cantonment area.

“Two platoon troops were deployed on request from the local administration as the violence erupted at the cantonment area,” an army spokesman told PTI.

At least seven persons, including three women, were killed and scores others hurt when Jamaat-Shibir men and locals clashed with law enforcers, attacked police outposts, vandalised government and Awami League offices in different areas of Bogra Sunday morning.

Two activists of Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir were killed and 21 bullet-hit as police, attacked by pickets, opened fire in Panchbibi and Sadar upazilas of Joypurhat during the strike while a Jamaat man and a boy were killed in a gunbattle with police in Rajshahi.

A constable was killed and three were seriously injured as Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Chhatra Shibir men clashed with police in Harinakunda upazila of Jhenidah.

Jammat activists last night set on fire a passenger train stationed at north-western Rajshahi but no casualty was reported.

Sayedee was the third JI politician to be convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal since the trial of war crimes suspects, mostly belonging to the Islamist group, began three years ago.

In the first verdict of the tribunal in January, former Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad was sentenced to death on similar charges.

Another Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah was sentenced to life in February for atrocities during the war.

Main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) extended its support to its crucial extreme rightwing ally, which was opposed to the countries 1971 independence siding with the then Pakistani junta, questioning the “neutrality” of the war crimes trial.

BNP, however, did not extend its moral support for the 48-hour JI shutdown unlike previous such occasions.

Reports said suspected extreme rightwing activists also set ablaze a Hindu temple and attacked two local leaders of ruling Awami League who were followers of Hindu faith at southwestern Bagerhat and ransacked another temple at suburban Gazipur district yesterday.

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