DHAKA: When Bangladesh set up a war crimes court in 2010, its stated aim was to heal the wounds from the nation's traumatic birth.
Three years on, its first verdicts have plunged the country into one of its most turbulent chapters since it broke free from Pakistan four decades ago and threatens lasting damage to the world's eighth most populous country.
More than 80 people have been killed in protests, thousands of tourists have been forced to flee and a series of strikes have pummelled an economy which had enjoyed annual growth rates of around six percent over the last 10 years.
"The verdicts and the subsequent violence have set Bangladesh on the road to a protracted conflict, which may leave permanent damage to society," said Ataur Rahman, a Bangladesh expert based at the State University of New York.
The former East Pakistan declared independence from Islamabad in December 1971 at the end of a nine-month civil war in which the government says three million people were killed. Independent estimates put the figure much lower.
The Dhaka-based International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up in March 2010, is trying around a dozen defendants over their role in the war and has so far convicted three Islamists, two of whom have been sentenced to death.But all the defendants are either members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party or of the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), prompting accusations that the process is politically-driven.
After the first verdict was handed down on January 21, thousands of Jamaat supporters took to the streets where many fought battles with the police. But in a sign of the fresh polarisation of a country which was born out of division, secular demonstrators responded with even bigger protests when the second defendant was sentenced to life in prison rather than ordered to hang.
Rahman said the divide between Bangladesh's Islamic and secular Bengali identities, which for decades had been "reconciled within the political process", was now growing rapidly. He warned of more violence in the coming months as the tribunal hands down its verdicts against seven more Jamaat officials and two from the BNP. "It's already a chaotic situation, exacerbated by the perception among many people that the war crimes tribunal is flawed and biased," he said.
The defendants are accused of having collaborated with forces from West Pakistan, leading militias on murderous rampages in towns and cities in 1971. But their claims that the tribunal is biased have been bolstered by a series of controversies, including the resignation of the chief judge last year after a tapped phone conversation showed him discussing the case with prosecutors.
A defense witness was also abducted outside the courthouse. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government has steadfastly rejected criticism of the court which it insists operates independently.
The rivalry between Hasina and BNP leader Khaleda Zia has been a central feature of politics here for years and the verdicts have fanned the flames. Zia has called the deaths of the protestors a "genocide" while Hasina has accused the BNP of siding with war criminals.
Mubashar Hasan, a political Islam researcher in Bangladesh, said that democracy in a country wracked by coups, stands on the brink of disappearing unless the two women can agree to sit down and "save it from more bloodshed".
"Chances are high that, the democracy of Bangladesh would be in jeopardy, if it is not already," said Hasan, based at Australia's Griffith University. Some commentators, however, say the scale of the violence is largely due to intelligence failures by police who were complacent about the Jamaat backlash. Shahdeen Malik, a law professor at Dhaka's Brac University, said the violence reflected a desperation in Jamaat's ranks that the party could be banned ahead of next January's elections and much of its leadership executed.
"It's true that nobody foresaw such a scale of violence and it's difficult how it's going to end," Malik told AFP. "But this violence is a sign of Jamaat's weakening support. They're attacking police out of desperation. They've resorted to violence because their support has declined due to the war crime convictions of their leaders."