Ex-Chief of Bangladesh Islamic Party Jailed for War Crimes

A Bangladesh tribunal sentenced the 91-year-old former chief of the country’s biggest Islamic party to spend the rest of his life in jail for crimes against humanity committed during the independence war four decades ago.

Ghulam Azam, who led the Jamaat-e-Islami and remains a key figure in the group, was found guilty of torture and the murder of unarmed people during the 1971 struggle, prosecutor Sultan Mahmud said at media briefing. Azam, who was charged with collaborating with the Pakistan army during to prevent the birth of Bangladesh, received a total of 90 years in jail.

This latest 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 tensions 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 Wajed of using the tribunal to weaken opponents.

The government expressed its dissatisfaction with today’s ruling and Mahmud said an appeal may be lodged.

“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.”

Hospital Stay

At the end of British colonial rule in 1947, East and West Pakistan were separated by 2,000 kilometers (1,241 miles) 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.

Dressed in white, Azam was pushed into court in a wheelchair, guarded by police and members of other security forces, according to images broadcast by the Ekattor TV channel. The former Jamaat leader was admitted to hospital after his January 2012 arrest. He had been treated close to Shahbag Square, where protesters have for months been demanding the death penalty for those found guilty by the tribunal.

Genocide Charges

Azam was indicted on five charges, including involvement in murder and torture of unarmed people, and conspiracy to commit genocide, according to a court document. One of the charges stacked against Azam involved the torture and murder of 38 people in the central district of Brahmanbaria, where he spent his childhood and attended a religious school, the document shows.

“It’s a fair and wise judgment,” Ahsan H. Mansur, executive director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, said by phone after today’s ruling. “Given his age, this is the only sensible action on the part of the judges.”

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