DHAKA: A wave of violence killed at least 21 people in Bangladesh Thursday as Islamists reacted furiously to a ruling that one of their leaders must hang for war crimes during the 1971 independence conflict.
At least 17 of them were shot in clashes between police and protesters that erupted after Delwar Hossain Sayedee, the Jamaat-e-Islami's vice president, was found guilty of war crimes, including murder, arson and rape.
He is the third person to be convicted by the much-criticised domestic tribunal whose previous verdicts have also been met with outrage from Islamists who say the process is more about score settling than delivering justice.
The latest clashes brought the overall death toll to 37 since the first verdict was delivered on January 21.
Also among the dead were two policemen who were beaten to death after thousands of Jamaat supporters attacked a base in the northern district of Gaibandha, local police chief Monjur Rahman told AFP.
“At least 10,000 Jamaat supporters attacked us with weapons. We were forced to open fire,” Rahman said, adding two protesters were shot dead.
Seventeen other people were also killed as violence spread all over the country, police said.
About 300 people including scores of policemen were also injured, doctors and police and local media said.
Police also reported attacks on several Hindu homes and temples by Islamists in the southern Noakhali district.
Security forces had been braced for trouble ahead of the verdict against Sayedee, who reacted to the judgment by saying it had been influenced by “atheists” and pro-government protesters who have been demanding his execution.
Sayedee, best known in Bangladesh these days as a firebrand preacher, was convicted for setting ablaze 25 houses in a Hindu village and abetting the murders of two people including Hindu man, according to a copy of the verdict.
He led a pro-Pakistani militia who abducted three Hindu sisters and raped them for three days at a Pakistani camp. He also forced at least 100 Hindus to convert to Islam and made them say Islamic prayers.
His lawyer Tajul Islam described the verdict as “a gross miscarriage of justice”, adding that Sayedee did not live in the town where the alleged crimes took place.
“It's a case of mistaken identity. We're stunned,” he told AFP.
However protesters at a central Dhaka intersection erupted in jubilation as news of Sayedee's sentence filtered through. “We've been waiting for this day for the last four decades,” a protester told Somoy TV.
There was no immediate reaction from Jamaat to the verdict, but the party has enforced a nationwide strike demanding a halt to the trials. The cases against eight more Jamaat leaders are still being heard.
Earlier this month the tribunal, a local court with no international oversight, sentenced Jamaat's assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Molla to life imprisonment.
While angering Jamaat supporters, that verdict also enraged secular protesters, tens of thousands of whom have since poured onto the Shahbag intersection in central Dhaka to demand the execution of Jamaat leaders.
In January the tribunal handed down its first verdict when it sentenced fugitive Muslim TV preacher Maolana Abul Kalam Azad to death.
The tribunal has been tainted by controversies and allegations it is targeting only the opposition with trumped-up charges. Rights groups say its legal procedures fall short of international standards.
The government rejects the accusations, saying the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the war that it says killed three million people.
It accuses Jamaat leaders of being part of pro-Pakistani militias blamed for much of the 1971 carnage.
The government says three million were killed but independent estimates put the figure much lower, between 300,000 and 500,000.