Top Bangladesh Islamist sentenced to death for war crimes

Top Bangladesh Islamist sentenced to death for war crimes

DHAKA - Agence France-Presse
Top Bangladesh Islamist sentenced to death for war crimes

A Bangladeshi former freedom fighter, who fought against Pakistan in the 1971 war, holds his national flag as he waits for the sentencing of former Jatiya Party minister Syed Mohammed Kaiser outside a special court in Dhaka on Dec. 23. AFP Photo

Bangladesh's war crimes court Dec. 30 sentenced a leading Islamist to death for rape, mass murder and genocide during the country's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.

A.T.M. Azharul Islam became the 16th person and the 11th Islamist to be convicted of atrocities by the International Crimes Tribunal, which found him guilty of being a key member of a notorious pro-Pakistan militia.

The 62-year-old is the assistant secretary general of the nation's largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e Islami.

"I am innocent!" he shouted as the presiding judge Enayetur Rahim ordered him to be "hanged by the neck" for the genocide of more than 1,200 people in a flood plain in the northern district of Rangpur.

"No doubt, it was mass murder," Judge Rahim told a packed court, which was blanketed by tight security.

Those killed included hundreds of Hindus - a minority in mainly Muslim Pakistan - in one of the worst episodes of the nine-month war.

The conflict ended with the former East Pakistan seceding from the regime in Islamabad, with the help of Indian troops, and becoming Bangladesh.        

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina created the controversial tribunal, a domestic court with no international or United Nations oversight, in 2010.

It has mostly focused on the trials of the Jamaat leaders who opposed the break-up of Pakistan and saw the liberation war by Bengalis as a conspiracy by majority-Hindu India.

The tribunal has also sentenced to death a former minister of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.        

Secular protesters staged impromptu "victory" marches in the capital Dhaka and in Rangpur to hail the latest verdict.

But defence lawyer Tajul Islam rejected the charges against Islam and said his team planned to appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court.

"Azharul Islam was a 19-year-old student during the war and in no way was involved in war crime. The charges against him are false and fabricated," the lawyer said.

Jamaat condemned the verdict, saying Islam did not get justice. "Islam is a victim of the government's continued conspiracy to murder the Jamaat leadership," acting party chief Maqbul Ahmed said in a statement, accusing the government of "arranging false witness statements by its party people."

Jamaat also called a nationwide strike for Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.

Previous death sentences handed down against Jamaat leaders, including its supreme and spiritual leaders, plunged Bangladesh into its deadliest unrest last year.

Thousands of Islamists clashed with police in nationwide protests over the verdicts and other issues and some 500 people were killed.

The BNP and Jamaat have called the trials politically motivated, aimed at eliminating opposition leaders rather than rendering justice. Rights groups have said they fall short of international standards.        

The government maintains they are needed to heal the wounds of the war, which it says left three million people dead. Independent researchers put the toll much lower.