DHAKA – A Bangladesh tribunal sentenced the former chief of the country’s biggest Islamic party to spend the rest of his life in prison for crimes against humanity committed during the country’s war of independence four decades ago.
Ghulam Azam, 91, was found guilty of torture and the murder of unarmed people during the 1971 struggle, prosecutor Sultan Mahmud said at media briefing. He was charged with collaborating with the Pakistan Army during the conflict when the Jamaat-e-Islami sought to prevent the birth of Bangladesh.
This latest and possibly most explosive sentence from the war crimes panel may reignite clashes between Jamaat supporters and security forces that have followed previous verdicts. Jamaat called a countrywide daylong shutdown to protest the ruling. Street violence erupted in parts of the country on the eve of the judgment, the Daily Star newspaper reported.
The clashes have exposed deep divisions in Bangladesh over the war and how to deal with calls for justice. Rallies of up to 100,000 people have been held in Dhaka by both those pushing for the death penalty for war criminals and Islamic groups who accuse the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of using the tribunal to weaken opponents.
The government expressed its dissatisfaction with Monday’s ruling.
“We are frustrated by the verdict,” Additional Attorney General M.K. Rahman said in comments broadcast live on television. “Ghulam Azam deserved the highest penalty — death. The judges took into account his age.”
At the end of British colonial rule in 1947, East and West Pakistan were separated by 2,000 km of Indian territory. Pakistani troops in 1971 attempted to quell a nationalist uprising in the east that was triggered by the jailing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had led his Awami League to victory in elections. The war ended nine months later with the creation of Bangladesh after Indian forces helped defeat Pakistan’s Army.
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