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Bangladesh halts execution of Islamist leader Mollah

The highest court of Bangladesh has granted a last-minute stay of execution to opposition leader Abdul Quader Mollah. Lawyers for the Islamist leader, convicted of war crimes, had sought a new review of the case.

A Bangladesh Supreme Court judge postponed the execution of Mollah late on Tuesday, as attorneys appealed for a fresh hearing.

Defense lawyer Sazzad Chowdhury told the AP news agency that members of Mollah's legal team had visited the home of chamber judge Syed Mahmud to make their plea for the postponement order.

"We have got that order," said Chowdhury. "Now the execution will remain halted until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday. "

A court registrar confirmed that the hanging had been put on hold to allow for a hearing to decide on the granting of an appeal. The stay of execution was granted just 90 minutes before it was due to take place at one minute past midnight local time (1801 UTC).

The defense team argues that the constitution enshrines rights for Mollah - dubbed "the Butcher of Mirpur" - to have his appeal heard in the Supreme Court.

Mollah had been convicted of involvement in mass murder and rape during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan.

Contentious convictions

Security had been tightened ahead of the scheduled hanging at the Dhaka Central Jail. Mollah's Jamaat-e-Islami party and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have claimed that the case, along with a number of other trials of opposition figures, are politically motivated.

The execution was to have been the first to follow a series of special trials conducted by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a court established by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2010. The tribunal has sentenced seven people to death in total.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch on Monday called on the Bangladeshi government to halt Mollah's execution.

In addition to criticism of the ICT trials, there has been condemnation from rights groups of a trial that saw 152 border guards sentenced to death for their alleged role in a 2009 mutiny. The uprising over pay and conditions had threatened to topple the then newly-elected Hasina and her fledgling government from power.

A further 160 members of the paramilitary border force, then known as the Bangladesh Rifles, were sentenced to life imprisonment.

rc/jr (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)