Bangladesh's war crimes court is set to deliver a verdict against the leader of the country's largest Islamist party, who could face the death penalty for his alleged crimes during the 1971 independence struggle.

Motiur Rahman Nizami, 71, faces 16 charges ranging from mass killing to rape, arson and genocide, relating to violence committed by one of the most notorious militias during the war.

A death sentence could trigger violent protests in the country as Nizami's Jamaat-e-Islami party has a strong grassroots base with hundreds of thousands of activists and supporters.

Jamaat leaders convicted last year
Ghulam Azam - ex-Jamaat chief sentenced to 90 years in jail
Following leaders were sentenced to death:
  • Delwar Hossain Sayeedi
  • Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid
  • Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury
  • Muhammad Kamaruzzaman
  • Abdul Kader Mullah
  • Abul Kalam Azad

Similar verdicts including the execution of a senior Jamaat leader last year saw massive unrest nationwide as Islamists fought with security forces in towns and cities, leaving around 200 people dead.

Nizami, the president of Jamaat-e-Islami, pleaded not guilty and accuses the country's secular government of using the special war crimes court to target opposition leaders.

Prosecutors say Nizami was one of the chief architects of the mass killings of Bengalis in the 1971 independence war which saw Bangladesh emerge from what was then called East Pakistan.

The government says three million people died in the war. Independent researchers put the estimate between 300,000 and 500,000.

"He established the Al-Badr forces during the war to support the Pakistani army," prosecutor Mohammad Ali told AFP ahead of the verdict and the sentencing, which he said would come on Tuesday.

As head of Al Badr, he was involved "in committing crimes against humanity such as genocide, murder, rape and arson" as well as the murder of the country's top intellectuals, Ali said.

Nizami, a minister in the Islamist-allied government between 2001-06 is already on death row after being sentenced to death in January for trafficking weapons and trying to ship them to a rebel group in northeast India.

Rights groups have criticised the war crimes court, saying it falls short of international standards.

The latest verdict would be the first since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won general elections in January, which were marred by widespread fraud and a boycott by all opposition parties.

Jamaat could not take part in the election after it was banned from contesting polls.

Source: AFP