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Death Toll From Bangladesh Unrest Hits 44

Violent clashes between protesters and security forces erupted across Bangladesh on Thursday, leaving at least 44 people dead, after a special war crimes tribunal handed down a death sentence to an 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 Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party, resonated across the country. It was celebrated by the hundreds of thousands of young protesters who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to condemn Jamaat and demand justice in the war crimes cases against other party leaders, insisting that those who were convicted be hanged.

“This verdict is a victory for the people,” declared Imran H. Sarkar, a blogger and an organizer of the protests, during a rally on Thursday afternoon.

But followers of Jamaat reacted with fury, saying the case brought against Mr. Sayedee and others was politically motivated and tainted by judicial irregularities. The police and witnesses said that of the 42 people killed in the unrest, six of them were policemen.

Jamaat leaders had called a nationwide strike on Thursday to protest the verdict, and by afternoon bloodshed had erupted across the country, as party workers fought with the 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, in which an estimated three million people were killed and thousands of women were raped. Before 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 the 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 war crimes tribunal has convicted three Jamaat leaders in connection with the war, and other cases are under way, including some against defendants not affiliated with the party.

Mr. Sayedee, 73, is a well-known religious speaker with a bright red beard who became a member of the Bangladeshi Parliament after the war. Prosecutors accused him of involvement in looting and burning villages, raping women and forcing members of religious minorities to convert to Islam during the war.

His defense lawyer, Abdur Razzaq, scoffed at the court’s verdict and accused the authorities of deliberately prejudicing the trial and preventing an important witness from testifying.

“This is unfortunate, and this is unexpected,” Mr. Razzaq said of the verdict and sentence in a telephone interview. “This is a perverse judgment. It is inconceivable that a court of law awarded him a conviction. This prosecution was for a political purpose.”


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