An MP for Bangladesh’s main opposition party has been sentenced to death by a war crimes court for charges including murder and genocide during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, the first member of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) to be tried by the court, was found guilty of nine out of 23 charges.
The BNP has consistently argued that the trial is politically motivated.
Previous verdicts against Islamist leaders have been followed by protests.
The war crimes tribunal was set up by the Awami League-led government in 2010 and opposition parties have accused it of pursuing a political vendetta against its opponents.
Human rights groups have also said the tribunal falls short of international standards.
“We will do whatever we need to do to show the world that this is a farce,” the Reuters news agency quoted Chowdhury’s wife, Farhat Quader
Chowdhury, as saying immediately afterwards.
Security was tight in Dhaka where the verdict was heard in a packed courtroom. Chowdhury is expected to appeal against it.
But troops were also deployed to Chittagong, the home district of Chowdhury where he has been re-elected six times – and where there is likely to be anger at the verdict.
Trauma of independence
Analysts say the tribunal’s verdicts have exposed profound divisions in Bangladeshi society.
Last month when the Supreme Court gave the death penalty to a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, Abdul Kader Mullah, there were demonstrations both for and against the decision.
The sentences handed down to its leaders over the last few months have unleashed a wave of unrest, pitting supporters of Jamaat against pro-government groups.
But this rupture goes back to the very origins of Bangladesh when some groups, including Islamist groups like Jamaat, opposed the struggle for independence from Pakistan.
The special court was set up in 2010 by the current Bangladeshi government to deal with those accused of collaborating with Pakistani forces who attempted to stop East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was then) from becoming an independent country.
It is trying nine Jamaat leaders and two members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – they have always denied any role in war crimes committed by pro-Pakistan militias then.
Chowdhury is the first of those BNP members – and the first sitting MP – to be sentenced.
Prosecutors accused him of genocide, abduction, committing atrocities against Hindus and forcefully converting a number of Hindus to Islam.
During the war his father was an influential politician who worked to prevent Bangladesh breaking away. The prosecution also said that his father’s residence in Chittagong was turned into a torture cell at that time.
Bangladesh government figures estimate more than three million people were killed during the war. Other researchers put the figure at between 300,000 and 500,000.