Dhaka: A Bangladesh war crimes tribunal sentenced an Islamist party leader to death on Thursday, the third verdict by the court set up to investigate abuses during the country’s independence war.
Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 73, vice-president of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty of charges of mass killing, rape, arson, looting and forcing minority Hindus to convert to Islam during the 1971 independence war, lawyers and tribunal officials said.
The religious party, known as Jamaat, called for a day-long countrywide strike in anticipation of the verdict against Sayedee, the third senior party member convicted by the tribunal. The strike call was largely ignored.
“The verdict has appropriately demonstrated justice. We are happy,” state prosecutor Haider Ali told reporters.
Jamaat officials were not immediately available for comment. They condemned the two earlier convictions.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the tribunal in 2010 to investigate abuses during the independence war that claimed about 3 million lives and during which thousands of women were raped.
The tribunal has been criticised by rights groups for failing to adhere to international standards of due process. Human Rights Watch cited defence lawyers, witnesses and investigators as saying 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 21 January, 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 Bangladesh’s 1971 war to break away from Pakistan.
In its second verdict, on 5 February, the tribunal sentenced another senior Jamaat member, Abdul Quader Mollah, 64, to life in prison after he was found guilty of charges including murder, rape, torture and arson.
Both of the verdicts sparked protests by Jamaat supporters.
But those protests incited larger counter-demonstrations by supporters of the tribunal demanding death sentences for all those responsible for abuses during the war.
At least a dozen people have been killed in days of protests by both sides across the country that have followed.
Thousands of people in the capital’s Shahbag square who have been protesting for weeks to demand the “highest penalty” for war criminals, burst into cheers as the verdict was announced.
Another nine people are awaiting trial, most of them Jamaat members.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. But the country then known as East Pakistan won independence 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.