A Bangladeshi tribunal prosecuting cases stemming from the 1971 independence war sentenced a leader of an Islamic opposition party to life in prison Tuesday, sparking street clashes with police that killed one man and injured several others.
Opposition leaders have criticized the war crimes trials, held 40 years after the country won independence from Pakistan, as an effort to weaken challengers to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government, and human rights groups have raised concerns about their fairness.
In a packed courtroom at the High Court in Dhaka, Judge Obaidul Hasan pronounced Abdul Quader Mollah guilty of killing a student and a family of 11 and of aiding Pakistani troops in killing 369 others. Defense lawyer Abdur Razzaq said he will appeal the verdict.
In anticipation of the verdict, Mollah’s Jamaat-e-Islami party had ordered a nationwide general strike to denounce the trial, shutting down schools and shops and halting most traffic in Dhaka.
Jamaat supporters exploded homemade bombs and clashed with police in parts of the capital, leaving several people injured, said ATN News, a private TV station. The party denounced the verdict and said it was extending the strike through Wednesday.
After the verdict was announced, one man was killed and several others injured when police opened fire at dozens of Jamaat supporters in Chittagong city, 135 miles (216 kilometers) southeast of Dhaka, local police official Shafiqul Islam said. He said police fired after rock throwing protesters attacked them.
Though the sentence was the most serious possible, short of execution, a government official expressed disappointment.
“It did not reflect the people’s expectation. We are frustrated,” Junior Law Minister Qamrul Islam said.
Mollah and five other Jamaat leaders have been on trial before the tribunal on charges they committed atrocities during the nine-month independence war against Pakistan. Last month, the tribunal sentenced former party member Abul Kalam Azad to death in the first war crimes trial verdict.
The tribunal was formed by Hasina’s government in 2010. Jamaat-e-Islami, a key ally of opposition leader Khaleda Zia, says the trials are politically motivated, and Zia, a former prime minister, has called the tribunal a farce.
Authorities deny the claim.
International human rights groups have raised questions about the conduct of the tribunals, including the disappearance — outside the courthouse gates — of a defense witness who was about to testify.
Until it gained independence in 1971, Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan. Jamaat campaigned against Bangladesh’s independence war and has been accused of forming several groups to help Pakistani troops in killing, rape and arson. The government says Pakistani troops aided by local collaborators killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women.