Bangladesh's top court has upheld a death sentence against the leader of the country's largest Islamist party. Rights groups and western governments have voiced concern over country's war crimes trials.
Bangladesh's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a death sentence against Motiur Rahman Nizami (pictured), the head of the Jammat-e-Islami party, for a wave of crimes including murder, rape, genocide and torture during the country's 1971 independence war from Pakistan.
The verdict is the latest from a war crimes tribunal looking into atrocities committed by Pakistani forces and local collaborators during the independence war, during which the government says three million people were killed, 200,000 women raped and 10 million people displaced. Independent researchers contest the government's high figures.
Jamaat was against independence but has denied committing atrocities during the nine-month conflict.
Prosecutors said Nizami headed the pro-Pakistani al-Badr militia as it carried out the murder of professors, writers, doctors and journalists to "intellectually cripple" the new state.
Fairness of trials under question
Domestic support for the trials is strong despite international concerns over the fairness of the trials.
Critics of the International Crimes Tribunal established by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2010 argue that it fails to follow international standards.
Human Rights Watch has called for accountability for war crimes committed during the liberation struggle, but has found the trials do not meet international standards. The United States has voiced support for the goal of the trials, while calling for the process to be fair and transparent when death penalties are imposed.
So far 24 defendants have been charged with crimes against humanity, murder and rape. Eighteen were sentenced to death, five to life in prison and one to 90 years in jail.
Among those already sent to the gallows were three senior Jamaat leaders and a member of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, headed by Sheikh Hasina's rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Nizami was a cabinet minister during Zia's 2001-2006 term.
The opposition has said the trials are politically motivated and come amid concern the government is stifling dissent.
Will death sentence beget more death?
The Supreme Court verdict against Nizami is likely to heighten tensions between Islamists and secularists at a time of rising concern over extremism.
Previous verdicts against Jamaat leaders have led to violent clashes between Islamists and security forces, leading to some 500 deaths.
Following the verdict, Jamaat announced a general strike for Thursday, calling the charges against Nizami "false, baseless and imaginary."
"The government wants to steer the country towards terrible conflict in a planned way by killing Motiur Rahman Nizami in cold blood through its own fixed blueprint," the party said in a statement.
Over the past year several, often deadly, attacks have been carried out on foreigners, secular writers and bloggers, and the Shiite minority, raising concerns of rising Islamic extremism in the country of nearly 160 million people.
cw/se (AFP, AP, dpa)