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War crimes

Bangladesh court finds top Islamist Ghulam Azam guilty of war crimes

Ghulam Azam, the former head of Bangladesh's largest Islamic party, has been found guilty of war crimes. He was sentenced to 90 years in jail for masterminding atrocities during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence.

Azam, 90, was sentenced to life in prison on Monday after the International Crimes Tribunal found him guilty of all 61 charges under five categories: conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetment and failure to prevent killing.

"Allegations of war crimes against Azam were proved beyond doubt, and the court sentenced him to 90 years in prison or in prison until his death," Additional Attorney General MK Rahman said.

The prosecution had sought the death penalty for Azam whom they described as a "lighthouse" who guided war criminals and the "architect" of many atrocities including genocide, murder, torture of civilians, and other crimes against humanity. The special tribunal of three judges instead opted for a prison sentence, citing the defendant's advanced age and failing health.

Azam led the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1971 during Bangladesh's bloody war of independence against Pakistan. Azam and his party were accused of forming a militia to suppress pro-independence fighters during the nine-month war.

According to the Bangladeshi government, 3 million people were killed and some 200,000 women raped by the Pakistani army with the assistance of local collaborators. Independent estimates have put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000.

Jamaat-e-Islami calls strike

Azam was taken to the tribunal from a prison cell in a government hospital, where he was being treated for various complications ahead of the verdict on Monday. Security was tight following fierce street battles earlier in the day.

Journalists were among up to a dozen people injured when police clashed with Jamaat-e-Islami supporters in parts of the capital, while party activists set fire to dozens of vehicles. Police reportedly fired rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators in Dhaka as well as the cities of Bogra, Comilla and Rajshahi.

Jamaat-e-Islami, of which Azam remains the spiritual head, has dismissed the trial as politically motivated. The party called a nationwide strike to protest the verdict, saying a number of similar trials were aimed at eliminating its leaders.

The International Crimes Tribunal was formed by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2010 to try suspects of the 1971 war. However, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, which is allied to Jamaat-e-Islami, has criticized the court, accusing the government of trying to weaken the opposition.

Monday's ruling was the tribunal's fifth conviction since January. Three Islamists have been sentenced to death and one was given life imprisonment.

ccp/mkg (AFP, Reuters)