DHAKA, Bangladesh — Violent clashes between angry mobs and security forces erupted across Bangladesh on Thursday, leaving at least 35 people dead, after a special war crimes tribunal handed down a death sentence to a fundamentalist Islamic leader for crimes against humanity committed 42 years ago, during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
The verdict against Delawar Hossain Sayedee, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, resonated across the country. It was celebrated by the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand justice in the war crimes cases, insisting that those who were convicted be hanged.
“This verdict is a victory for the people,” declared Imran H. Sarkar, a blogger and organizer of the protests, during a rally on Thursday afternoon. But followers of the Jamaat party reacted with fury, saying the case brought against Sayedee and other party leaders was politically motivated and tainted by judicial irregularities. Jamaat leaders called a nationwide strike Thursday to protest the verdict, and by afternoon bloodshed had erupted across the country, as party workers fought with police in the streets.
The protests for and against Jamaat have convulsed Bangladeshi politics, demonstrating that the country has still not healed from the bloody 1971 conflict, when an estimated 3 million people were killed and thousands of women were raped. Prior to the war, Bangladesh was East Pakistan, separated from the rest of that country by a wide expanse of India; the war pitted Bangladeshi separatists against Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators, who were known then as Razakar Bahini.
“As judges of this tribunal, we firmly hold and believe in the doctrine that justice in the future cannot be achieved unless injustice of the past is addressed,”’ Justice A.T.M. Fazle Kabir commented in a written summary of the judgment.
The International War Crimes Tribunal has now convicted three Jamaat leaders in connection with the war, and other cases are still under way, including some against defendants not affiliated with the party. Sayedee, 73, is a well-known religious speaker with a bright red beard who became a member of the Bangladeshi parliament after the war. He was accused by prosecutors of involvement in looting and burning villages, raping women and forcing members of religious minorities to convert to Islam during the war.