At least 44 dead in Bangladesh protests over death sentence for Islamic leader

Protesters clashed with police for a second day Friday as the death toll rose to at least 44 from violence triggered by a death sentence given to an Islamic party leader for crimes linked to Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war, police said.

The latest fighting broke out in the northern Gainbandha and Chapainawabganj districts, killing two people, police officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

At least 42 people were killed Thursday in rioting triggered by the death sentence given to Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a top leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic party.

Jamaat, a key ally of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, campaigned against independence from Pakistan, but denies it was behind any atrocities.

In Dhaka, dozens of Jamaat supporters smashed several vehicles on Friday, witnesses said. Baton-wielding police dispersed the protesters.

Jamaat called for protests after Friday’s Islamic prayers, and authorities responded by dispatching thousands of police and paramilitary troops in Dhaka.

Jamaat urged its supporters to converge on mosques to offer a special mass prayer for those killed during the violence Thursday. The private Ekattor TV reported that Jamaat supporters set up roadblocks in parts of the country, cutting off travel.

“We must stay alert. Jamaat and its allies are trying to plunge the nation into anarchy,” Junior Law Minister Quamrul Islam said. “We will not allow them to destroy democracy.”

Sayedee was sentenced to death for mass killings, rape and atrocities allegedly committed during the bloody nine-month independence war more than 40 years ago. A teacher at an Islamic seminary school at the time, he is the third defendant to be convicted of war crimes by a special tribunal set up in 2010.

His lawyer, Abdur Razzak, rejected the verdict as politically motivated. He said his client will appeal to the Supreme Court.

Passions have boiled over in recent weeks as tribunals have tried suspects on accusations they committed crimes during the independence war. Bangladesh says as many as three million people were killed and 200,000 women raped by Pakistani troops and local collaborators during the fighting.

Thousands of students turned a Dhaka intersection into a protest camp last month, demanding the execution of one Jamaat leader given a life sentence after his conviction for mass killings.

Sayedee’s supporters responded to his sentence by clashing with police, attacking government offices and uprooting railway tracks in parts of the country. Protesters also set fire to dozens of houses belonging to government supporters.

Police responded with bullets and tear gas.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party spokesman Mirza Fakhrul Islam accused security forces of deliberately killing the protesters. “It was another form of mass killings,” he told reporters Friday. “We must stand up against such brutalities.”

Jamaat has called for a nationwide general strike on Sunday and Monday to denounce the verdict.

At a news conference Friday, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, also called for a nationwide strike on Tuesday.

“This government has surpassed all records of suppressing the opposition. We must protest,” she said.