Bangladesh’s High Court panel ruled on a petition filed in 2009 by a group of citizens that challenged the legality of Jamaat-e-Islami’s registration as a political party and claimed the movement wants to impose Islamic-based law in the country.
Jamaat-e-Islami lawyers said they will appeal the verdict to the country’s Supreme Court.
Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim, secular, democratic nation. Jamaat-e-Islami, while the largest Islamic party in the country, wins a small percentage of the votes in elections.
The ruling comes at a time when the Islamists are already under legal pressure from a war-crimes investigation.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s government set up the International Crimes Tribunal to try those accused of joining the Pakistani army in a campaign of rape and murder against Bangladeshis in the war for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Bangladesh says 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women were raped in the war.
Four Jamaat-e-Islami leaders have so far been tried and sentenced. Three of them were condemned to death and the fourth, a 90-year-old Islamist, received a 90-year prison term last month.
Toby Cadman, an international defense lawyer for Jamaat-e-Islami leaders accused of war crimes, said the High Court’s ruling on the movement’s political status is a “worrying development.”
“We have long suspected that the government has been using the war-crimes trials as a way of targeting the political opposition,” said Mr. Cadman.
The verdicts in recent cases against two Jamaat-e-Islami leaders focus on “criminalizing Jamaat as a political party,” said Mr. Cadman. “[The High Court action] is just a very cynical attempt by the government to weaken the political opposition as we approach the elections.”
Parliamentary elections are expected early next year.
Jamaat-e-Islami is a key ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Mr. Cadman said he has been barred from entering Bangladesh since October 2011 because of his criticism of the war-crimes tribunal.
A Bangladeshi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, dismissed Mr. Cadman’s accusations as “false propaganda against the [war crimes tribunal] as well as Bangladesh.”
“The International Crimes Tribunal is maintaining international standards to try the criminals,” the official added.
Photo: Islamist protesters protest in Dhaka, on May 5, 2013. Bangladesh’s main Islamist party has been banned from contesting next year’s election after the High Court ruled that Jamaat-e-Islami’s charter breached the country’s secular constitution. (AFP/File)