TV preacher sentenced to hang for war crimes

A controversial Bangladeshi war crimes court probing the nation's bloody independence struggle sentenced a fugitive Islamic TV preacher to death on Monday as it handed down its first judgement.

Maolana Abul Kalam Azad, who has been on the run for about a year, "is found guilty... to be hanged by the neck until he is dead" for genocide and murder during the 1971 liberation war against Pakistan, Judge Obaidul Hasan announced.

The International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic body with no international oversight, was created by the government in 2010 and has been tainted by allegations it is politically motivated.

But its first verdict was warmly welcome by the government and its supporters.

"It's a victory for humanity. Bangladeshi people have been waiting for this day since 1971. They can now heave a sigh of relief," said Attorney General Mahbubey Alam.

Supporters of the ruling Awami League party held instant processions in the capital and across the country as the verdict was announced. There were also marches by former freedom fighters, some of whom made V-signs.

Azad, 63, who for years presented a widely watched show on Islam on private and state-run television channels, is a former leading light of Bangladesh's largest opposition Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami.

In total, 11 top opposition figures -- nine from Jamaat and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) -- stand accused of war crimes.

Both Jamaat and the BNP have called the cases "politically motivated and farcical" and international rights groups have questioned the proceedings and found loopholes in the war crime laws.

Abdus Shukur Khan, a tribunal-appointed defence lawyer for Azad, said the case was "false".

"He was not involved in any of these crimes and was never named a Pakistani collaborator," he told AFP, adding the convict can appeal the verdict in the Supreme Court but he "must surrender to the court or be arrested".

Prosecutor Shahidur Rahman told AFP that Azad was a Jamaat activist during the war when he was known as "Bachchu the collaborator" in his home town in a southwestern district, where he was accused of murdering at least a dozen Hindus.

"I am happy that Bachchu the collaborator is sentenced to death. The government should now find him and execute him," a Hindu who said Azad had killed his father during the war told private ATN news television. 

Azad, who also heads an Islamic charity, is believed to have fled the country immediately after the tribunal opened the case against him.

Bangladesh, which was called East Pakistan until 1971, has struggled to come to terms with its violent birth.

The current government says up to three million people were killed in the war, many murdered by locals who collaborated with Pakistani forces.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government established the tribunal in March 2010 to try the collaborators, but it has been hit by a series of controversies.

Last month a presiding judge resigned after his leaked Internet calls showed he was under pressure from the government to deliver a quick judgement.

"There is no doubt that atrocities were committed in 1971, and the Jamaat leaders now before the tribunals certainly have very legitimate questions to answer about their alleged involvement," war crimes researcher David Bergman told AFP.

"But a number of the trials have significant due process shortcomings, have become highly politicised, and more recently evidence of collusion between the prosecution, government and a tribunal judge has emerged."

The government says the trials are fair and meet international standards. 

Twenty-two prosecution witnesses testified against Azad in the trial which concluded quickly as the defence failed to bring any of its witnesses.    

Judge Hasan blamed Jamaat for creating pro-Pakistan militias during the war and said the impunity that war criminals enjoyed had "held back political stability, saw the ascent of militancy and destroyed the constitution".

 

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