By Kamrul Khan (AFP)

October 29, 2014

A Bangladesh court on Wednesday sentenced to death the leader of the country’s largest Islamist party for war crimes, a long-awaited verdict that triggered violent protests by his supporters.

The war crimes tribunal found Motiur Rahman Nizami, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, guilty of mass murder, rape and looting during Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan in 1971.

Head judge Enayetur Rahim sentenced Nizami to “hang by the neck until his death” for orchestrating the killing of doctors, intellectuals and others during the conflict as head of a ruthless militia.

“It’s a historic verdict,” chief prosecutor Haider Ali told reporters outside the packed and heavily guarded court in Dhaka.

Ali said Nizami, Jamaat’s leader since 2000 and a minister in a former Jamaat-allied government, led the notorious Al-Badr militia “which took part in many heinous crimes”.

Security was tightened across Bangladesh before the ruling after similar judgments against several of Nizami’s senior lieutenants plunged the country into one of its worst crises last year.

Jamaat supporters took to the streets in cities and towns to protest against the latest sentence, clashing with police and border guards, but it was quiet in the capital.

Around 1,000 Jamaat activists hurled small bombs at officers who fired rubber bullets and tear gas in response in the northwestern town of Shibganj, police inspector Abdus Sabur Khan told AFP, adding that about a dozen people were injured.

Police also fired rubber bullets and tear gas in the northeastern city of Sylhet to disperse demonstrators, while smaller clashes and protests were reported in more than a dozen other towns and cities.

Jamaat, more than a dozen of whose leaders are being tried for war crimes, called a three-day nationwide strike starting Thursday, saying it was “stunned” by the verdict.

Junior home minister Asaduzzaman Khan said “all sorts of security measures” had been taken across Bangladesh including the deployment of extra police, amid fears the sentence could unleash a new round of bloodletting.

Tens of thousands of Jamaat supporters fought with police and more than 500 people died in the earlier unrest and in subsequent political violence ahead of disputed polls in January.

– Death hit list –

Nizami at the time of the war was leader of the Islami Chhatra Sangha, what was then the student wing of Jamaat. Prosecutors say he turned it into the Al-Badr pro-Pakistani militia which killed professors, writers, doctors and journalists.

The aim was to make the fledgling nation an “intellectual cripple”, prosecutor Mohammad Ali said before the verdict.

“When it was clear Pakistan was losing the war, as the chief commander of Al-Badr he ordered a ‘hit list’ based on which top intellectuals were abducted and killed,” he said.

Nizami is already on death row after being sentenced to hang in January for trafficking weapons and trying to ship them to a rebel group in northeast India.

Nizami’s defense lawyer vowed to appeal the sentence in the Supreme Court, saying his client was being pursued as part of a government witch-hunt against its opponents.

“It’s an unacceptable judgment. The court ruled beyond its jurisdiction. There was no evidence that anyone saw him killing,” lawyer Tajul Islam said.

Law minister Syed Anisul Haque said “the government is satisfied” with the sentence, and he would push to have Nizami’s likely appeal hearing heard quickly.

Since it was established by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in 2010, the International Crimes Tribunal has sentenced around a dozen opposition leaders for war crimes.

Rights groups have criticized the trials, saying they fall short of international standards and lack any international oversight.

The secular government maintains the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the conflict, which it says left three million people dead.

Independent researchers estimate that between 300,000 and 500,000 people died in the 1971 war.