By Mark Magnier
NEW DELHI, India — Protesters clashed with police in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka on Tuesday after a tribunal sentenced an Islamic party leader to life in prison for his role in the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.
The International Crimes Tribunal handed down the verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah, 64, a senior figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami party, in a crowded, heavily guarded courtroom at the high court complex in Dhaka.
Jamaat called a general strike Tuesday that shuttered shops and schools and slowed traffic to a crawl in parts of the capital.
On Monday, in the wake of a large Jamaat protest demanding that the tribunal be scrapped, several people were injured, local media reported.
“We’re in the midst of chaos,” said Ataur Rahman, a professor at the University of Dhaka. “It’s part of Bangladesh politics.”
Mollah was found guilty on five of six charges, including mass murder and rape. Prosecutors accused him of participating in the deaths of several hundred unarmed civilians as a then-top leader in the Jamaat’s student wing while studying physics at Dhaka University, a charge he denied.
Several other Jamaat leaders are accused of crimes against humanity during the war against Pakistan over four decades ago. On Jan. 21, a major TV preacher and former party member was sentenced to death in absentia.
Atty. Gen. Mahbube Alam told media representatives Tuesday that the verdict “upset us as we expected … capital punishment for the crimes he committed.”
Human rights groups have questioned proceedings at the tribunal, which was created in 2010 and has no international oversight. Concerns include a decision not to probe the November disappearance of a defense witness outside the courthouse gates.
“An allegation as serious as the abduction of a witness deserves prompt action and a thorough and impartial investigation,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement at the time.
Jamaat rejected Tuesday’s verdict and called for another strike Wednesday in a bid to ramp up pressure pn the ruling Awami League.
“The verdict is a reflection of political vengeance,” Rafiqul Islam Khan, Jamaat’s acting assistant secretary-general, told reporters. “The verdict is dictated by the government.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, which initiated the tribunal, has denied any bias in the proceedings. Bangladesh’s political system can be highly polarized, and all of those on trial for war crimes are opposition politicians.
Analysts said the government may have underestimated how contentious the tribunal would become. Many of the accused are well-entrenched in Bangladeshi politics four decades on, even as a younger generation finds appeal in Jamaat’s Islamic message.
“If the government pushes too hard to get these guys, it could create more divisions in society,” Rahman said. “We still carry a lot of emotion from the 1971 war.”
He added that there could be a silver lining for the government, however, if it can divert attention from the trial to the transition to democracy and upcoming elections, due by the end of this year.
Jamaat, which opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, is suspected of helping organize groups that assisted Pakistani troops in killings, rapes and arson. According to official figures, Pakistani troops and local collaborators killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women.
Police last week said they shot and killed two Jamaat activists in clashes across Bangladesh. The party has put the number of its members in the hands of police at four. Twelve people, including five policemen, were injured over the weekend after Jamaat supporters clashed with police in a Dhaka suburb.
The trials come amid economic hardship, differences over election rules and recent labor protests in connection with the deaths of 112 people in a November garment factory fire.