Dhaka - Bangladesh's highest court has commuted the death sentence of a top Islamist leader, triggering protests by both his supporters and secular opponents.

In a ruling on Wednesday, the Supreme Court said that Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 74, should spend "the rest of his natural life" in jail for crimes committed during the 1971 liberation war with Pakistan.

Jamaat Leaders Convicted Last Year
Ghulam Azam - ex-Jamaat chief sentenced to 90 years in jail.
The following leaders were sentenced to death:
Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury
Muhammad Kamaruzzaman
Abdul Kader Mullah
Abul Kalam Azad
Delwar Hossain Sayeedi - his death sentence commuted

"We had expected that the court would uphold his death sentence," Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told AFP news agency.

Defence lawyers said they were not satisfied with the court's ruling on Sayedee, who was convicted last year on eight counts including murder, rape and persecution of the country's minority Hindu community.

Tajul Islam, one of Sayedee's defence lawyers, said that he was "pleased" that the Jamaat-e-Islami leader had not received the death sentence, but said that he "should have been acquitted of all charges. There was no scope to convict him".

Violence erupted between police and hundreds of angry secular demonstrators who converged on Dhaka University after the verdict to protest at perceived leniency.

Armed with batons, police fired tear gas and water cannon to try to disperse the demonstrators who shouted slogans and threw stones at officers.

"This is part of negotiations between the government and the Jamaat-e-Islami party," said protest leader Imran Sarker, whom police said was among seven people injured.

Secular activists have long called for the banning of Jamaat, the country's largest Islamist party of which Sayedee was the vice president, accusing its leaders of atrocities committed during the war.

Controversial trial

Jamaat called a two-day nationwide strike starting from Thursday. It said Sayedee was prosecuted on "false and fabricated" charges.

Last February's judgement by a war-crimes court led to weeks of deadly protests that left more than 100 people dead and plunged the impoverished nation into a major crisis.

Since then, a total of nine current or former Jamaat leaders have been convicted of offences by the tribunal.

Sayedee's trial became controversial in November 2012 after Sukhranjan Bali, the brother of one of the men whom the Jamaat leader was accused of murdering, was apparently abducted from outside the tribunal gates as he was on the way to provide testimony on behalf of Sayedee.

Some months later Bali turned up in an Indian jail where he said that law enforcement officers had taken him from outside the court, detained him for six weeks and then dumped him over the Indian border. Bangladeshi government officials deny the allegation.

Rights groups say legal procedures at the tribunal fall short of international standards. 

The government rejects the accusations, saying the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the war that it claims killed three million people. Independent estimates put the number of deaths between 300,000 and 500,000.

With inputs from David Bergman in Dhaka

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies