DHAKA (Reuters) - A Bangladeshi Islamist party leader was sentenced to death on Thursday over abuses carried out during the country’s independence war, triggering riots that killed at least 30 people.
Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 73, vice-president of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty by Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal of mass killing, rape, arson, looting and forcing minority Hindus to convert to Islam during the 1971 war of separation from Pakistan, lawyers and tribunal officials said.
After he was convicted and sentenced, police clashed with activists from Sayedee’s party and violence raged in more than a dozen areas around the country, police, witnesses and media reports said.
At least three policemen were among the dead and around 300 were wounded, they added.
Protesters, who said the verdict was politically motivated, set fire to a Hindu temple and several houses in southern Noakhali region, reporters said. In the southeastern region of Cox’s Bazar, they attacked a police camp, killing one.
Two policemen were killed when Islamists stormed a police station at Sundarganj in northern Gaibandha district, police said. “We have been virtually besieged. It’s a horrible situation,” station officer Manzur Rahman told Reuters.
Members of the religious party - known simply as Jamaat - called for a national strike on Sunday and Monday, raising fears of more violence. Sayedee was the third senior party member convicted by the tribunal.
In the capital, authorities deployed extra police and paramilitary soldiers, a Home Ministry official told reporters.
Thousands of people in the capital’s Shahbag square, who support the tribunal and have been protesting for weeks to demand the highest penalty for war criminals, burst into cheers as the sentence was announced.
Sayedee looked defiant but remained calm in the dock as judges read out the verdict, witnesses said.
“I didn’t commit any crime and the judges are not giving the verdict from the core of their heart,” Sayedee told the tribunal, said reporters at the hearing.
State prosecutor Haider Ali told reporters he was happy with the verdict which he said “appropriately demonstrated justice”.
Defence attorney Abdur Razzak said the sentence was politically motivated. “He is a victim of sheer injustice. We will appeal,” he said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the tribunal in 2010 to investigate abuses during the war that claimed about 3 million lives. Thousands of women were raped during the conflict.
The tribunal has been criticised by rights groups for failing to adhere to international standards. Human Rights Watch said lawyers, witnesses and investigators reported they had been threatened.
Critics say the tribunal is being used by the prime minister as an instrument against her opponents in the two biggest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Begum Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s arch rival and leader of the BNP, has called the tribunal a farce.
Hasina’s party has denied allegations of bias.
On January 21, the tribunal sentenced Abul Kalam Azad, a former Jamaat member, to death in absentia after he was found guilty of torture, rape and genocide during the independence war.
In its second verdict, on February 5, the tribunal sentenced another senior Jamaat member, Abdul Quader Mollah, 64, to life in prison after he was found guilty of murder, rape, torture and arson.
Both verdicts triggered protests by Jamaat supporters, in which at least 15 people were killed.
Nine more people, mostly Jamaat members, are facing trial for war crimes, tribunal officials said.
The overwhelmingly Muslim south Asian country of 160 million people would likely see more violence in the run-up to parliamentary elections in January, in which both Hasina and Khaleda will run for power, analysts said.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. But the country, then known as East Pakistan, won independence with India’s help in December 1971 following a nine-month war against the then West Pakistan.
Some factions in Bangladesh opposed the break with Pakistan, including the Jamaat. Jamaat leaders have denied involvement in abuses. (Additional reporting by Ruma Paul and Serajul Quadir; Editing by Nick Macfie and Andrew Heavens)