The Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, Shahbag protests and political violence: a rather peculiar penal popularism, political vendetta or defence of national identity and democracy?

Since 2010 the Awarmi League Government has instituted War crimes Trials of alleged colloborators in the 1971 ‘War of Liberation’ that provided the constitutional moment and founding narrative of Blangadeshi national identity. Massive street protests broke out in February 2013 – the Shahbag movement – when Adbul Quarder Mollah was sentenced to life imprisonment demanding the death penality. The Shahbag movement was see as Bangladeshi’s paradox, liberals demanding death, and cause massive counter demonstrations. The verdicts have led to several executions of mainly Islamic opposition figures and resulting political violence resulted in the boycotting of the 2014 elections and the current constitutional ‘one party’ administration. How does one characterise this complex situation: penal popularism, political vendetta, or a sincere attempt to remedy the lack of accountability since Bangladesh’s founding moment?    

From protecting individual rights to protecting the public: the changing parameters of populist driven criminal law and penal policy

It had been the case that in advanced liberal democracies, criminal law and penal policy were bound by clearly defined parameters, that then helped to distinguish governance in the democracies from the non-democratic world. And one of the features of citizenship in the democracies was the importance that was given to protecting individual rights in the administration of justice. From the 1980s, however, this has given way to a focus on protecting the public, at the expense of individual rights from those who would otherwise put it at risk. As this has occurred, criminal law has become more regulatory, punitive an extensive. It will be argued that the rise and influence of penal populism lies behind these transformations. It illustrates their extent and importance and explains why populist influences should have had so much purchase in this particular sector.

Rethinking populism and its threats and possibilities

Resurgent populism is depicted as a pathological perversion of democratic principles, an enemy of the rule of law. But is this an inherent feature of populism or only of its contemporary manifestations? ‘Populist’ is not usually a label adopted by way of self-description but is deployed by others to deprecate any political movement, leader, policy etc of which the user disapproves. Reliance on the negative force of the label appears as a disavowal of the forms of rational debate that are being defended by populisms’ critics. Also, this may be evidence that politics operates on the plain of emotions as much as rationality and that this is not confined to the unlettered and gullible. Definitional clarity of populism and its place in politics is required for assessing its current force. Rather than treating populism as a deviant political form, it is necessary to grasp it as a positive political rationality in the sense of being an autonomous and normal dimension of democratic politics.

The popular politics of punitiveness: security, identity, and changing societies

The rise of populism has become a central feature of contemporary political and penal practices. What are the common (or country-specific) causes of these seemingly isolated strains of penal populism and how do they take shape in different social milieu? This paper addresses these salient questions. Its objectives are two-fold. First, it develops a typology of the mechanisms and dynamics of penal populism. Its attention to populism in non-democratic settings complements existing literature. Second, this article sheds light on the social forces which underpin the rise of penal populism across national borders, including both endogenous and exogenous drivers which arouse concerns about security in public psyche. Whether and how these conditions trigger penal populism depends on a range of factors, including, but not limited to, the political currency of popular involvement and the degree of division in identity formation.