Dhaka – Bangladesh was rocked by a new wave of deadly violence Friday as Islamist supporters went on the rampage to vent their fury at the execution of one of their leaders for war crimes.
Abdul Quader Molla became the first person to be hanged for his role in the country’s bloody 1971 war of independence from Pakistan when he was sent to the gallows at a prison in the capital Dhaka late Thursday.
The hanging took place at 10:01 p.m. after the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal for a final review of the death sentence handed down to Molla, who was a senior figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami party.
Molla had been found guilty in February by a much-criticized domestic tribunal of having been a leader of a pro-Pakistan militia that fought against the country’s independence and killed some of Bangladesh’s top professors, doctors, writers and journalists.
He was convicted of rape, murder and mass murder, including the killing of more than 350 unarmed civilians. Prosecutors called him the “Butcher of Mirpur,” a Dhaka suburb where he committed most of the atrocities.
Fears that the execution could spark further unrest, in a country where political violence is intensifying in the buildup to deeply divisive elections, were soon realized as the Islamists rioted in street battles in towns and cities.
Two protesters were killed and two activists from the ruling Awami League were hacked to death Friday. Jamaat activists firebombed train stations, set fire to businesses and blockaded key highways, police officials said.
Violence also erupted near the country’s largest mosque in Dhaka after Friday prayers as Jamaat activists detonated crude bombs and torched at least a dozen cars and vehicles, AFP correspondents at the scene said.
Police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, critically injuring a child, footage aired by private station Channel 24 showed.
Activists also tried to burn down the coastal village home of one of the war crimes trial judges, local police chief Anisur Rahman told AFP.
“They tried to torch the house with kerosene. We fired rubber bullets to disperse them. No one was injured,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Bangladesh was passing through a “very sensitive moment,” urging all parties to resolve their differences peacefully.
“We’ve long urged the authorities to assure that trials are free, transparent and in accord with international standards, but we’ve also urged all parties and their supporters to express their views peacefully and again, to refrain from violence,” she said.
Authorities went ahead with the execution despite widespread international appeals against the move, including from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The government, which has also rebuffed international pressure to delay the elections scheduled for next month, was unrepentant about the decision to carry out the execution of 65-year-old Molla.
Molla’s wife and children were allowed a final meeting with him at the prison hours before the execution, and found him to be “calm.”
“He told us that he is proud to be a martyr for the cause of the Islamic movement in the country,” Molla’s son, Hasan Jamil, told AFP.
Shortly after the execution, Molla’s body was driven by police escort to his home village in central Faridpur district, where he was buried beside his parents’ graves in a predawn service attended by around 300 people, local police said.
Jamaat has called the execution a “political murder” and warned of exacting revenge for “every drop” of Molla’s blood.
But in a sign of the sharp divide in Bangladesh, thousands of secular protesters erupted in celebration as news of the execution came.
They had been camping at Shahbagh square in Dhaka since Tuesday night, shouting slogans including: “Hang Quader Molla, hang war criminals.”
Molla was one of five Islamists and other politicians sentenced to death by the domestic court known as the International Crimes Tribunal, which the opposition says is aimed at eradicating its leaders.
The sentences have triggered riots and plunged the country into its worst violence since independence. Some 235 people have now been killed in street protests since January, when the verdicts were first handed down.
Hasina’s government says 3 million people died in the 1971 war, many at the hands of militias led by Jamaat leaders who opposed the then East Pakistan seceding from Islamabad.
Independent researchers put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000 people.