Bangladesh's war crimes court has sentenced a leading Islamist leader to death for rape, mass murder and genocide during the country's 1971 liberation war.

ATM Azharul Islam, 62, assistant secretary general of the nation's largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, became the 16th person and the 11th Islamist to be convicted of atrocities by the International Crimes Tribunal.

The tribunal found him guilty on Tuesday of being a key member of a notorious pro-Pakistan militia.

He was ordered "hanged by the neck" for the genocide of more than 1,200 people in the northern district of Rangpur.

"No doubt, it was mass murder," presiding judge Enayetur Rahimjudge Rahim told a packed court.

Those killed included hundreds of minority Hindus in one of the worst 
episodes of the nine-month war, which saw what was then east Pakistan break away from the regime in Islamabad.

Azharul Islam was a 19-year-old student during the war and in no way was involved in war crime. The charges against him are false and fabricated

Defence lawyer Tajul Islam

Defence lawyer Tajul Islam rejected the charges against Azharul Islam and said his team planned to appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court. 

"Azharul Islam was a 19-year-old student during the war and in no way was involved in war crime. The charges against him are false and fabricated," the lawyer said.

Nationwide shutdown

Jamaat-e-Islami has called dawn-to-dusk countrywide shutdown for Wednesday and Thursday in protest against the verdict.

Previous death sentences handed down against Jamaat leaders, including its supreme and spiritual leaders, plunged Bangladesh into its deadliest unrest last year.

Thousands of Islamists clashed with police in nationwide protests over the verdicts and other issues that left some 500 people dead.

The BNP and Jamaat have called the trials politically motivated, aimed at eliminating opposition leaders rather than rendering justice.

Rights groups 
have said the trials fall short of international standards. The government maintains they are needed to heal the wounds of the war, which it says left three million people dead.

Independent researchers put the toll much lower.

Source: Agencies