By JIM YARDLEY
NEW DELHI – A top leader of a fundamentalist Islamic political party in Bangladesh was sentenced to death on Thursday by a special war crimes tribunal that convicted him of committing crimes against humanity during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
The death sentence against Delawar Hossain Sayedee, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, sparked joyous celebration among thousands of people gathered in central Dhaka, the nation’s capital. For weeks, huge crowds of protesters, led by college students and ordinary citizens, have demanded justice against those accused of war crimes in what has morphed into a national movement.
The protests have convulsed Bangladeshi politics and offered a reminder of how the country has still not fully healed from the bloody 1971 conflict, when as many as 3 million people were killed and thousands of women were raped. Before the war, Bangladesh had been the detached, eastern half of Pakistan. The war pitted Bangladeshi freedom fighters against Pakistani soldiers and also their local collaborators, many of whom are now linked to Jamaat.
The International War Crimes Tribunal has now convicted three Jamaat leaders, with other cases still underway.
Mr. Sayadee is a prominent orator with a brightly colored red beard who in the years after the war became a member of the Bangladeshi parliament. He was convicted on multiple counts of crimes against humanity, including charges of looting, torching villages, raping women and forcing religious minorities to convert to Islam during the war. His defense lawyer scoffed at the verdict.
“Obviously, we will appeal as he is innocent,” Abdur Razzaq, a senior defense lawyer, told reporters in Dhaka, according to the Bangladesh online news outlet, bdnews24.com. “He was supposed to be acquitted. Prosecution secured the verdict in their favor by producing false witnesses.”
Jamaat leaders and other opposition politicians have strongly criticized the war crimes tribunal, saying the proceedings are being manipulated by the government into a political witch hunt and have violated international legal norms. Irregularities in the proceedings led to the resignation of a former presiding justice.
Across Bangladesh, followers of Jamaat, along with members of the party’s youth wing, have staged violent protests against the proceedings. On Thursday, Jamaat sought to enforce a nationwide hartal, or shutdown of commerce and transportation, as a protest gesture against the verdict against Mr. Sayadee. Media outlets reported that at least two people had been killed by Thursday afternoon.
The larger, more unexpected movement has come from the students who began gathering at the downtown Shahbagh intersection on Feb. 5, after the tribunal announced a life sentence against one of the other Jamaat leaders, Abdul Quader Mollah. Furious that the tribunal had not sentenced Mr. Mollah to death, protesters gathered in growing numbers until the crowds on certain days surpassed 200,000 people.
Many political analysts say the Shahbagh protests represent the most significant and spontaneous political movement in Bangladesh in decades. Yet if the movement is suffused with idealism and a proud nationalism, it also bears a hard edge, with the demands for executions of convicted war crimes criminal.
Sultana Kamal, a prominent human rights leader in Dhaka, said she disagreed with the calls for the death penalty but thought such demands reflected an abiding cynicism among many ordinary Bangladeshis who have seen war criminals evade punishment for decades. Many people were infuriated when Mr. Mollah, after receiving his life sentence, made a victory sign.
“We have a problem in accepting that they are demanding the death penalty,” Ms. Kamal said in a telephone interview. “But we understand that it was from a nervousness among the people here that unless they are given the highest penalty in the land, these people will come back out.”