Riots broke out in several Bangladesh cities yesterday after a court sentenced a senior Islamist opposition official 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-criticized domestic court based in Dhaka.
Molla cried “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great) and said the charges, which also include crimes against humanity, were false after presiding judge Obaidul Hassan delivered the verdict in a crowded court.
“He deserved death sentence because of the gravity of the crimes. But the court gave him life imprisonment,” Bangladeshi Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said, adding Molla was found guilty of five out of six charges including mass murder.
The judgement sparked immediate protests by Jamaat, the country’s largest Islamic party, which enforced a nationwide strike in anticipation of the conviction.
It warned it would resist “at any cost a government blueprint” to execute its leaders.
Police said they had clashed with protesters in Dhaka and in several other cities across the country in the aftermath of the verdict. In northwestern Rajshahi, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at about 500 Jamaat supporters who hurled at least a dozen homemade firebombs.
The verdict is the second by the tribunal. On Jan. 21 a top TV preacher who is also 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 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — stand accused of war crimes. Both Jamaat and BNP have labeled the cases “show trials” aimed at barring the leaders from upcoming polls. International rights groups have questioned the proceedings.
Prosecutors said that 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 said, adding he was known as “Butcher of Mirpur,” after 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.
The tribunal, which has no international oversight, was created by the government in 2010. It has been tainted by allegations it is politically motivated and targets only senior opposition officials. The judge in Molla’s case refused a prosecution bid to try him for genocide.
Defense 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 defense witnesses. But the tribunal allowed only six,” said Shazzad Chowdhury, adding that they would appeal the verdict.