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Shahbag Square, the heart and soul of a students' movement

Shahbag Square, the heart and soul of a students' movement
Dhaka:  The cry of "Joy Bangla" pierces the air, the word "joy" stretched out like a rubber band and "Bangla" crashing on seashore like a wave.

At Shahbag Square in Dhaka, it has been four tumultuous weeks since a trickle of angry students turned into deluge and then a tsunami that swept in a brand new force in Bangladesh, the force of its youth, angry and determined to be heard, angry and determined to alter the course of their country.

Four weeks since February 5, the numbers may have diminished a little at Shahbag but the passion is still there in plenty. Passion fuelled by a huge number of young students who have turned slogan shouting into an art, none better than 22-year-old Lucky Akthar whose inspired, imaginative, emotional war cries are guaranteed to make the hair stand on end. (Watch)

"I am the one who is inspired by the millions of people who have joined the Shahbag movement," says the student of English literature. "Also, I am a freedom fighter's daughter. I wasn't there when my father fought to liberate Bangladesh. Shahbag is my freedom struggle."

Shahbag is demanding the death sentence for the 12 alleged war criminals now being tried at the international crimes tribunal set up by the Sheikh Hasina government.

The 12 war criminals are accused of rape, murder and mayhem and collaborating with the Pakistan army during the liberation war in 1971. Most of the war criminals being tried are today leaders of the Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islam. For 42 years, Bangladesh has waited for justice and today they want nothing short of the ultimate punishment: death by hanging.

"I do not feel in the least apologetic about the call for death sentence," says Shariar Kabir, one of Dhaka's leading writers and activists. "We are not asking for anything illegal. And the war criminals who are being tried," they deserve no less."

Shahbag was born when the International Crime Tribunal gave life sentence to war criminal Kader Mollah on February 5, with thousands upon thousands congregating there day and night. Most of them young, many of them bloggers who used the World Wide Web to spread the spark of protest. Even President Pranab Mukherjee praised the youth of Bangladesh.

"You have been steadfast... You know that it means respect for the rule of law and building of strong institutions along with free speech and a vibrant media. I am confident that democratic traditions in Bangladesh will grow stronger with time and that you will preserve democracy with your constant vigil," President said during a speech at the Dhaka University.

However, a bomb exploded in front of the President's Hotel in Dhaka in the afternoon - on the second day of hartal (strike) called by the Jamaat. And fingers are pointing at the Jamaat who have gone on the rampage since one of the war criminals, Delawar Hossain Sayedee, was sentenced to death on Thursday.

The Jamaat claims the international war tribunal is flawed and the Shahbag movement has compromised any chances of getting a fair trial.

"Those who are at Shahbag, they have made it abundantly clear they want a death sentence. The Prime Minister in Parliament has asked the judges of the Tribunal to take into account the wishes of the Shahbag people," said Abdur Rezzak, Jamaat leader and lawyer for the war crime accused.

"There is no environment for delivering justice. It is very charged and people are making it clear they are not satisfied with anything other than a death sentence.

"A death sentence is given not depending on the demand of the outsider. It is given depending on hard evidence, on point of law point of fax. So there is no atmosphere for free and fair trial," says Rezzak.

But Shahbag is on a roll, a movement that is the first of its kind against fundamentalism... a movement that, the protesters say, has brought back the spirit of 1971 back to this country... a movement after which many believe Bangladesh will never be the same again.

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