DHAKA - Bangladesh's Supreme Court has sentenced an Islamist leader to death for war crimes during the country's 1971 war of independence, revising an earlier life sentence and triggering outrage from his lawyers and protests from his supporters.
"He is being handed down the capital punishment," said Chief Justice M Muzammel Hossain, as the apex court reviewed the first ever case of the "crimes against humanity" during the 1971 war, PTI news agency reported on Tuesday, September 17.
The tribunal found Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, guilty on 5 February of murder, rape and torture.
The 65-year-old leader is the first politician to be found guilty by the Supreme Court after it rejected an appeal to acquit him of all charges.
The life sentence imposed at the time also triggered protests by people believing the punishment was too lenient compared to his claimed crimes.
In a bid by the government to appease protesters, the parliament amended a law to allow the state to appeal against any verdict or sentence passed by the tribunal. The former East Pakistan declared independence from Islamabad in December 1971 at the end of a nine-month civil war in which the government says three million people were killed.
Independent estimates put the figure much lower.
A dozen of defendants are being tried by the Dhaka-based International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up in March 2010, over their alleged role in the war.
But all the defendants are either members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party or of the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), prompting accusations that the process is politically-driven.
The war trials have angered Islamists and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), who call them a politically motivated bid to persecute the leadership of Jamaat.
The top leader's death penalty triggered outrage from his lawyers and protests from his supporters, calling the sentence as politically motivated.
"This decision over which the accused now has no further right of appeal or review is in clear breach of international law," Mollah's international legal team said in a statement.
"It lends further weight to calls for the war crimes trials to be condemned and replaced by a credible, international criminal tribunal under the auspices of the United Nations."
Defense attorney Abdur Razzak dismissed the sentence as politically motivated, promising to file a petition for a review, but Attorney General Mahbube Alam said a review was not an option under the constitution. A series of death penalties and life sentences targeting Bangladeshi Islamic leaders have ignited uproar in the Asian country.
Last July, protests erupted after elderly Ghulam Azam, 91, was sentenced to 90 years in jail for his involvement in mass killings and rape during the war.
Azam was the fifth Islamist leader to be charged of war crimes during the independence war.
Last May, Mohammad Kamaruzzaman, assistant secretary general of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party, was sentenced to death for war crimes during the 1971 independence war.
In March, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced to death on charges of committing war crimes during the independence war.
The verdict drew widespread condemnations from Muslims worldwide and triggered deadly protests in Bangladesh, which left at least 200 people dead.
Several Jamaat leaders and two from the BNP are still on trial at the tribunal.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch group has said the tribunal's procedures fall short of international standards.