A Bangladeshi court on Thursday banned the South Asian nation’s largest Islamist party from taking part in the next elections, saying the party violates the country’s secular democratic principles.
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)