Dhaka - Deadly riots broke out in Bangladeshi cities on
Tuesday after a court sentenced a senior Islamist opposition leader to life in
prison for mass murder during the 1971 liberation war against Pakistan.
Abdul Quader Molla, 64, the fourth-highest leader of the
Jamaat-e-Islami party, was the first politician to be found guilty by the
International Crimes Tribunal, a much-criticised domestic court based in Dhaka.
Molla cried "Allahu Akbar!" (God is greater)
and said the charges were false after presiding judge Obaidul Hassan delivered
the verdict in a crowded and tightly guarded court.
"He deserved the death sentence because of the
gravity of the crimes. But the court gave him life imprisonment," said
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam, adding Molla was found guilty of five out of
six charges including mass murder.
A man was shot dead in clashes with police in the port
city of Chittagong as the ruling sparked immediate protests by Jamaat, the
country's largest Islamic party, which enforced a nationwide strike in
anticipation of the conviction.
"We fired in self-defence after hundreds of
protesters attacked us with firearms and handmade bombs," Deputy Police Commissioner
Habibur Rahman told AFP, adding an unidentified man died of bullet wounds and
10 officers were injured.
Police also clashed with protesters in the capital Dhaka,
firing rubber bullets to disperse a group of protesters who were smashing
And in the north-western city of Rajshahi police fired
tear gas and rubber bullets at about 500 Jamaat supporters who hurled a dozen
The verdict is the second by the tribunal.
On 21 January a top TV preacher who is an ex-Jamaat
official was sentenced to death in absentia for murder and genocide.
Ten other opposition figures - including the entire
leadership of Jamaat and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist
Party (BNP) - stand accused of war crimes.
Both Jamaat and BNP have labelled the cases "show
trials" aimed at barring the leaders from upcoming polls. International
rights groups have questioned the proceedings.
Prosecutors said during the war Molla was a senior figure
in the then-student wing of Jamaat, while studying physics at Dhaka University,
and was a member of a pro-Pakistan militia accused of killing hundreds of
thousands of people.
"He directly participated in the killing of over 350
unarmed Bengali civilians including a poet and a top journalist,"
prosecutor Mohammad Ali told AFP, adding he was known as "Butcher of
Mirpur", a Dhaka suburb.
"He killed my father and he got away. I am not
happy," said Khandoker Abul Ahsan, son of Khandoker Abu Taleb, a
well-known journalist killed during the 1971 war.
Security was tight in the capital with more than 10,000
police on patrol as war veterans and ruling party supporters held rival
Schools were closed and many shops and businesses
shuttered. Motorways linking Dhaka with other cities were largely empty.
Police said a young banker was burnt to death and four
people injured in Dhaka on Monday night after a bus was torched by suspected
Jamaat activists protesting the war crime trials.
The tribunal, which has no international oversight, was
created by the country's secular government in 2010.
The opposition has alleged that it is politically
motivated and is selective in its targets.
Defence lawyers said Molla, Jamaat's assistant secretary
general, spent the entire time in the nine-month war in his village and alleged
that the tribunal severely curtailed their ability to prove his innocence.
"We put forward the name of 965 defence witnesses.
But the tribunal allowed only six," said Shazzad Chowdhury, adding that
they would appeal the verdict.
Bangladesh, which was called East Pakistan until 1971,
has struggled to come to terms with its violent birth.
The current government says up to three million people
were killed in the war, but independent estimates put the figure far lower.