Bangladesh has executed Islamist leader Motiur Rahman Nizami for war crimes committed during the country's 1971 independence war against Pakistan. Security was beefed up to deal with a possible backlash from Islamists.
Motiur Rahman Nizami, who headed the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was hanged at 12 a.m. local time (18:00 UTC Tuesday), Law Minister Anisul Haq told the Reuters news agency.
Nizami's execution was carried out at Dhaka Central Jail, according to private broadcaster Somoy TV.
Hundreds of activists who support executions of 1971 war criminals had gathered outside the prison, holding national flags and cheering.
Prosecutors had accused Nizami of setting up the pro-Pakistan Al-Badr militia, which killed top writers, doctors, journalists and intellectuals during the conflict. Four opposition politicians, including three leaders from Nizami's party, have already been convicted and executed by the tribunal. Their convictions in 2013 triggered clashes between Islamists and the police, killing hundreds of people.
The government has increased security in the capital, Dhaka, and other major cities fearing a backlash from Nizami's supporters and other Islamist groups.
The Supreme Court in Dhaka confirmed Nizami's death sentence last week. The court first upheld the death penalty for Nizami in January, but the Jamaat leader's lawyers filed a final appeal in the court in March.
The 73-year-old was a former minister in Khaleda Zia's government and had been in jail since 2010, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina established a tribunal to punish offenders in the 1971 liberation war against former West Pakistan.
According to Bangladesh's government, around 3 million people were killed and hundreds of thousands of women raped at that time - although independent researchers have disputed these figures.
Nizami's execution couldn't come at a worse time. The South Asian country, which appears to be at a crossroads in its efforts to preserve the secular nature of the state, is witnessing an unprecedented surge in violence. Recently, a secular teacher, two gay activists and a Hindu citizen were murdered by Islamists who want to impose Shariah law in the country.
Prime Minister Hasina has blamed the upsurge in violence on the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and the Jamaat-e-Islami, although both groups have denied having any links with the attackers.
Islamist groups are also targeting atheist bloggers, who are using online platforms as a means of free speech in an otherwise restricted setting.
"There is a political aspect to that struggle between those who are promoting political Islam to turn Bangladesh into a fundamentalist, religious state and the secular political forces. The more radical branches of the Islamic organizations are gaining strength by the day," Imran Sarker, head of Blogger and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh, told DW.
International rights groups have questioned the legitimacy of Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), claiming the trials against the accused are generally unfair.
"The critics of the ICT allege that the objectives of the war crimes tribunal are political," Siegfried O. Wolf, a researcher at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute, told DW. "They say that the trials and subsequent executions are 'politically motivated murders.' Rights groups also slam the South Asian country for the use of capital punishment," he added.
"At the same time, there are many people who support the tribunal and believe it is doing an important job. There was a strong demand to establish these courts and prosecute those who committed crimes during the liberation war," said Wolf.
The analyst believes those who were involved in the 1971 war crimes are still threatening the country's peace and stability. "They still maintain, or have established new links, with Pakistan-based terror groups as well as international jihadist organizations like 'Islamic State' and al Qaeda. There will be no peace in Bangladesh until these people and groups are brought to justice."