DHAKA: A Bangladesh court on Wednesday sentenced a leading Islamist politician to death for war crimes including murder, torture and kidnapping, sparking calls by religious hard-liners for a nationwide strike.
Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, 65, the second-highest ranked official of the country’s largest Islamic party, was found guilty of five of seven charges by the much-criticized International Crimes Tribunal.
Mujahid yelled “it’s injustice” and recited a verse from the Qur’an as Justice Obaidul Hassan ordered him “hanged by the neck” after the verdict was read out to a packed courtroom in the capital Dhaka.
The verdict is the second this week by the tribunal, set up by the secular government in 2010, which has been hearing cases of alleged atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.
The spiritual leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, 90-year-old Ghulam Azam, was convicted on Monday and sentenced to 90 years in prison for masterminding atrocities during the war.
Violence erupted over that verdict, with five people killed when police clashed with Jamaat supporters, who imposed a nationwide strike from Monday.
The trials have divided the country and sparked deadly protests, with Jamaat supporters branding them a sham aimed at eliminating their leaders. Secularists have demanded the execution of all those accused.
Unlike other such courts, the Bangladesh tribunal is not endorsed by the United Nations. Human Rights Watch has said its procedures fall short of international standards.
On Wednesday, scores of Jamaat activists took to the streets in the western city of Rajshahi to protest the latest verdict. Police fired rubber bullets at supporters who were burning wood in an attempt to block a highway, local police chief Ziaur Rahman said.
Some 25 activists were arrested, Rahman told AFP.
Mujahid, the secretary-general of Jamaat, was a former minister in a previous government and is also an influential leader in the 18-party opposition alliance.
The judge said Wednesday that Mujahid had been the commander of Al Badr, a notorious militia that carried out “extermination of intellectuals” toward the end of the war. The judge said he was found guilty, among other crimes, of the abduction and murder of a top journalist.
“In three out of five charges he was given the death sentence. Our 42 years of wait for justice are finally over,” the country’s junior attorney general and prosecutor M.K. Rahman said.
“As the president of Jamaat’s now defunct student wing, he was the chief of the notorious Al Badr militia between October and December in 1971,” prosecutor Muklesur Rahman Badal told AFP.
When it became clear that Pakistan was losing the war, dozens of intellectuals were abducted from their homes and murdered in December 1971 in the most gruesome chapter of the war.
Their bodies were found blindfolded with hands tied in a marsh on the outskirts of the capital.
Shaheen Reza Noor, whose father Sirajuddin Hossain was the top journalist who disappeared during that period, was delighted at Wednesday’s verdict.
“My father was abducted just six days before independence because of his pro-independence writings,” Noor, also a journalist, told AFP. “We’re satisfied at the verdict. But we’ll be happy when he’ll be executed.”
Defense lawyer Tajul islam said his client would appeal the ruling.
“It’s a perverse judgment. There was no iota of evidence against him. The case is politically motivated,” he said.
Mujahid is the sixth Islamist to be sentenced by the war crimes court since January. Previous sentences plunged the country into widespread violence that has killed more than 150 people.
The opposition has criticized the trials as a politically motivated exercise aimed at settling old scores rather than meting out justice.
The government maintains the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the 1971 war in which it says three million died. Independent estimates put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000.