A Bangladesh war crimes tribunal has convicted and sentenced assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party to death for war crimes, raising fears of clashes between the police and supporters of the Islamist leader.
Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, 59, was found guilty on charges of genocide and torture of unarmed civilians during the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan, lawyers and tribunal officials said on Thursday.
Supporters and activists of Jamaat and its student front Islami Chatra Shibir staged violent protests against the verdict in cities across the country, including Sylhet, Rajshahi, Khulna and Patuakhali, police and witnesses said.
They said activists blocked highways, attacked vehicles, started fires and attacked banks and government buildings. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them.
Jamaat called a day-long general strike on Sunday to protest against the verdict.
Obaidul Hassan, the head of the three-judge tribunal, said the charges had been proved beyond doubt and sentenced him to death.
One of the charges that carried the death penalty was being a commander of a massacre of 120 people.
Defence lawyer Ehsan Siddiky said justice was denied to his client and promised to appeal.
Analyst David Bergman told Al Jazeera that there were cheers outside the court when the verdict was announced.
"The defence, however, is extremely critical of the judgement and can not believe so much responsibility is being placed on a man who was just 19 at the time," he said.
|Activists of Jamaat set fire to bamboo during a clash with police in Rajshahi after the verdict [Reuters]
"They say the only crime he has committed is being a leader of the opposition. It is true that many of those facing the tribunal are from Jamaat-e-Islami, but they are known to have collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971 and so they are an obvious target for prosecution."
Kamaruzzaman, who had pleaded not guilty through his lawyers, was accused of committing multiple abuses during the country's liberation war.
"He was just a lad during the war. It's a ridiculous suggestion that a 19-year-old could control the Pakistani army," chief defence counsel Abdur Razzaq said.
He was found guilty of leading his followers to kill at least 183 people in his home district of Sherpur in northern Bangladesh.
The prosecution said he had formed the group Al-Badr to collaborate with the Pakistani army and led them to kill unarmed people and rape women.
Bangladesh says the war left three million people dead, 200,000 women raped and millions forced to flee to neighbouring India.
The Jamaat, the largest Islamic party in the country, backed Pakistan during the independence war, but has denied its leaders were involved in war crimes.
'Village of widows'
The genocide charge against Kamaruzzaman stems from the killing of at least 120 unarmed Bangladeshi farmers in the remote northern village of Sohagpur, which has since become known as the "Village of the Widows".
Extensive coverage of war crimes trials and calls for blasphemy laws that have divided the nation.
Three of the widows testified against Kamaruzzaman at his trial in which the prosecution detailed how the then 19-year-old led Pakistani troops to the village.
The tribunal was told the soldiers then marched the farmers to paddy fields, forced them to stand in a line and proceeded to gun them down en masse.
Mohammad Jalal Uddin, a farmer who lost seven members of his extended family in the killing, was delighted at the verdict.
"I lost my father, uncle and other relatives. Their crime was to have taken part in training to join the freedom fight," said Uddin, who was a student at the time.
"We still have 37 widows in the village."
Previous convictions of other Jamaat leaders, including two that carried the death penalty, led to protests and violence throughout Bangladesh.
More than 100 people have been killed in clashes this year, most of them party activists and members of the security forces.