Dhaka - A Bangladesh war crimes court sentenced a top Islamist opposition figure to death on Thursday, a verdict that unleashed a new wave of deadly clashes between police and protestors.
Four people were shot dead in the violence that erupted after a court in Dhaka found Delwar Hossain Sayedee, vice-president of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, guilty of eight crimes related to the 1971 liberation war with Pakistan.
Prosecutor Syed Haider Ali said Sayedee was sentenced to death by hanging after he was found guilty of eight charges including murder, arson, rape and forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam.
He is the third person to be convicted by the much-criticised domestic tribunal whose previous verdicts have also been met with outrage from Islamists who say the process is more about score settling than delivering justice.
The latest clashes brought the overall death toll to 20 since the first verdict was delivered on 21 January.
Two protestors were killed in the northern town of Sirajganj and another two in Mithapukur when police opened fire during clashes with hundreds of Islamists, police officials and doctors said.
10 000 extra police
"They became violent and attacked us. Police fired back," police officer Sadrul Islam of Sirajganj said, adding the violence was triggered by the death penalty. "Dozens were also injured."
Emergency doctor Shariful Islam said two bullet-hit people died and one was injured after clashes between police and protesters at Mithapukur.
At least five people were injured after police fired live rounds at scores of Jamaat protesters in Dhaka where round 10 000 extra police had been drafted in.
Security forces had been braced for trouble ahead of the verdict against Sayedee, who reacted to the judgment by saying it had been influenced by "atheists" and pro-government protesters who have been demanding his execution.
His lawyer Tajul Islam described the verdict as "a gross miscarriage of justice", adding that Sayedee did not live in the town where the alleged crimes took place.
"It's a case of mistaken identity. We're stunned," he said.
However protesters at a central Dhaka intersection erupted in cheers as news of Sayedee's sentence filtered through. "We've been waiting for this day for the last four decades," a protester told Somoy TV.
There was no immediate reaction from Jamaat to the verdict, but the party has enforced a nationwide strike demanding a halt to the trials. The cases against eight more Jamaat leaders are still being heard.
Earlier this month the tribunal, a local court with no international oversight, sentenced Jamaat's assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Molla to life imprisonment.
While angering Jamaat supporters, that verdict also enraged secular protesters, tens of thousands of whom have since poured onto the Shahbag intersection in central Dhaka to demand the execution of Jamaat leaders.
In January the tribunal handed down its first verdict when it sentenced fugitive Muslim TV preacher Maolana Abul Kalam Azad to death.
The tribunal has been tainted by controversies and allegations it is targeting only the opposition with trumped-up charges. Rights groups say its legal procedures fall short of international standards.
The government rejects the accusations, saying the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the war that it says killed three million people.
It accuses Jamaat leaders of being part of pro-Pakistani militias blamed for much of the 1971 carnage.
The government says three million were killed but independent estimates put the figure much lower, between 300 000 and 500 000.