DHAKA: A special tribunal in Bangladesh on Wednesday sentenced the leader of the country's largest Islamist party to death for his role in the deaths of thousands of people during the nation's independence war against Pakistan in 1971.
Motiur Rahman Nizami, 71, sat calmly in the dock as the head of a three-judge panel, M. Enayetur Rahim, read the verdict in the packed courtroom in Dhaka, the capital.
Outside, police and paramilitary units patrolled the streets because previous verdicts by the tribunal have sparked violence.
Nizami's Jamaat-e-Islami party denounced the verdict in a statement and called nationwide general strike for Thursday, Sunday and Monday. Friday and and Saturday make up the weekend in Bangladesh.
Nizami, a former Cabinet minister, was tried on 16 charges, including genocide, murder, torture, rape and destruction of property.
Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed 3 million people, raped 200,000 women and forced about 10 million people to take shelter in refugee camps across the border in neighboring India during the nine-month war.
The prosecution said Nizami acted as the supreme commander of a militia group, Al-Badr, which carried out a systematic plan to torture and execute pro-liberation supporters during the war, including teachers, engineers and journalists.
The group is blamed for killing dozens of people by kidnapping them from their homes just before Pakistan surrendered to a joint force of India and Bangladesh on Dec. 16, 1971. At that time, Nizami was also the president of Islami Chhatra Sangha, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, in what was previously called East Pakistan.
He faces charges of personally carrying out or ordering the deaths of nearly 600 Bangladeshis.
Asif Munier, the son of a university teacher and a prominent writer who was killed in 1971, said he and his family had been waiting for this for 43 years.
"I want the verdict be implemented soon," Munier said.
The Jamaat-e-Islami party had openly campaigned against independence and its leader at the time, Ghulam Azam, toured the Middle East to mobilize support for Pakistan, but the party has denied committing atrocities. Azam, who was jailed until death for similar charges, died naturally in a prison cell on Oct. 23.
Two special tribunals set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to try people for war crimes have delivered 10 verdicts. One senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami party has already been hanged for his role in killing people in 1971.
Nizami was a Cabinet minister during former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's last term in 2001-2006.
The prosecution welcomed the verdict but the defense said they would appeal.