Bangladesh's Supreme Court has rejected a final appeal by the leader of the top Islamist party against a death sentence for atrocities committed during the country's 1971 war of independence, lawyers said on Thursday, meaning he could now be hanged at any time.
The supreme court in January upheld the death penalty for Motiur Rahman Nizami, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, for genocide, rape, and orchestrating the massacre of top intellectuals during the 1971 conflict. Prosecutors say he set up a pro-Pakistani militia called Al-Badr that abducted and killed doctors and journalists during the war.
The verdict comes as the Muslim-majority nation suffers a surge in militant violence in which atheist bloggers, academics, religious minorities, and foreign aid workers have been killed.
In the last month alone, five people, including a university teacher, two gay activists, and a Hindu have been hacked to death by suspected Islamist militants. The government has blamed the increase in Islamist violence on Jamaat, but the group denies any link to the attacks.
In response to the ruling, hundreds of people flooded the streets of the capital, Dhaka, to celebrate. There has been no report of violence, although Jamaat called a nationwide 24-hour strike for Sunday in protest.
Authorities have deployed additional security forces in Dhaka and elsewhere as similar previous judgments triggered unrest that resulted in the deaths of around 200, mainly Jamaat activists and police.
Nizami, 73, a former legislator and minister under Khaleda Zia when she was prime minister, has been in jail since 2010, when he was charged with war crimes by a tribunal set up by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina which aimed at looking into abuses carried out during the war. The Awami League, currently leading the government, say the tribunal is helping the country come to terms with its past.
However, the war crimes tribunal has also sparked violence and drawn criticism from opposition politicians, including leaders of Jamaat, who say it is victimizing Hasina's political opponents.
The question now is whether Nizami will attempt to seek clemency from the president. "All the legal battles are over," his lawyer, Khandaker Mahbub Hossain, told reporters on Thursday. "Now it is up to him, whether he will seek clemency… or not."
About 3 million people were killed during the 1971 war, official figures show, while thousands of women were raped. The war lasted nine months in total, and saw some factions, including Jamaat, opposing the break from what was then called West Pakistan.
However, the party continues to deny that its leaders committed any atrocities. In February last year, Abdus Subhan, another Jamaat leader, was sentenced to death for murder, looting, and abduction.
A total of four opposition politicians, including three Jamaat leaders, have been convicted by the war crimes tribunal and executed since late 2013.
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