Bangladesh braces for violence after Islamist politician's war crimes verdict

The Bangladesh authorities were bracing themselves for a new wave of violence after a controversial war crimes court sentenced a leading Islamist politician to life in prison on Monday.

The judgment was the latest in a series this year that have prompted unrest in the south Asian state. An election is scheduled to take place within the next six months and there are fears of increasingly intense clashes as political factions seek to establish supremacy on the streets in the runup to the poll.

Even before the verdict on Ghulam Azam, 91, a former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party (JI), was announced, there had been rioting, attacks with makeshift bombs and pitched battles. Approximately 100 people have been injured since Sunday, according to local police officials.

The series of trials has revealed a deeply polarised society, in which grievances dating back more than 40 years to the brutal war of independence that saw Bangladesh break away from Pakistan remain raw.

Azam was sentenced to 90 years in prison for planning, conspiracy, incitement and complicity to commit genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1971 conflict, lawyers and tribunal officials said. An ambulance brought the cleric, who uses a wheelchair, to court.

"He was tried for five charges and all the five charges have been proved … He deserves highest priority of death but considering his age and ailments ... he has been awarded a sentence of 90 years or unto death in prison," MK Rahman, Bangladesh's attorney general, told reporters.

JI, the main Islamist party in the country and a key part of an opposition coalition led by the Bangladesh National party (BNP), called a day-long strike to protest against the verdict. Further demonstrations are planned for on Tuesday, officials said.

The tribunal has angered both religious conservatives in the country of 160 million and the BNP. The BNP has called the trials a politically motivated attempt to persecute the JI leadership ahead of elections.

Senior government officials in Dhaka told the Guardian last month that the inquiry into the alleged war crimes – set up in 2010 by the government of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina – was an essential effort to "deal with historical ghosts".

The extent of the atrocities in 1971 – and responsibility for them – has always been disputed. The war claimed as many as 3 million lives, according to estimates. Some Bangladeshi Islamists collaborated with Pakistani military forces in a systematic campaign of rape, arson and murder.

"This is true that Ghulam Azam believed in an undivided Pakistan … But genocide and crimes against humanity are completely different from working for Pakistan's freedom and sovereignty … The prosecution has not been able to prove any of the 61 charges it has brought against him," JI said in a statement.

The tribunal has so far sentenced three other Jamaat leaders to death and another to life imprisonment. Monday's decision against Azam is itself controversial.

In February, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of the capital, Dhaka, to demand capital punishment for all accused in the war crimes trials. The demonstrators were mostly young, the children of those who fought and suffered in the 1971 war.

On Monday young people again blocked Dhaka's main intersection, the Shahbag. Many fear the government may be showing leniency to help cement an electoral pact with the Islamists.

"The verdict has failed to fulfil the expectations of the people. The political parties will have to prove that they want fair justice against the war crimes accused," said Imran H Sarkar, who led the earlier campaign.

Manzurul Ahsan Khan, adviser of the central committee of the Communist party of Bangladesh, said the age of the defendant should not be a consideration.

"The court said that considering his age they have given a lesser punishment. But when he ordered killings and genocide, he never considered age. He was the leader of these killings and inhuman actions in Bangladesh," Khan said.

The Shahbag protesters have called for a countrywide shutdown on Tuesday and have pledged to reoccupy the intersection.

"From today we will hold indefinite stay at Shahbag again," Maruf Rosul, a 24-year-old activist, said.

Government officials defended the verdict. Gowher Rizvi, chief representative of the prime minister, said: "Some people are understandably disappointed at the leniency of the sentence. But the government is pleased with the fair judicial process and that all the charges of genocide have been upheld by the court."

Six more JI leaders and two from the BNP are also on trial at the tribunal, which has been criticised by human rights groups for falling short of international standards.

Abdur Razzaq, a JI defence lawyer, said the "entire process is flawed" and that the party would appeal Monday's verdict.