Bangladesh’s controversial war crimes court delivered its first verdict on Monday against a popular Islamic televangelist accused of genocide and rape during the 1971 liberation war against Pakistan.
Maolana Abul Kalam Azad, who has been on the run for nearly a year, was sentenced to death in absentia by the Dhaka-based tribunal.
The International Crimes Tribunal, which was set up by Bangladesh’s secular government in March, 2010, has come in for widespread criticism for targeting opposition leaders including the entire leadership of an Islamic party.
Prosecutors say 63-year-old Azad, who also heads an Islamic charity, killed more than a dozen Hindus, raped Hindu women and abetted Pakistani forces in the genocide of Bangladeshis.
“He himself shot dead six Hindus and took part in a genocide,” prosecutor Shahidur Rahman told reporters.
Azad, who presented a widely watched show on Islam and sharia for years on private and state-run television channels, is a former leading light of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami.
Eleven more opposition officials including Jamaat’s leader and deputy leader as well two senior figures in the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are also being tried by the tribunal.
Both Jamaat and BNP have called the cases “politically motivated” while international rights groups have also questioned the proceedings and found loopholes in the war crime laws.
Abdus Shukur Khan, a tribunal-appointed lawyer for Azad, said the case was “false”.
“He was not involved in any of these crimes and was never named as a Pakistani collaborator in any of our war books,” he told reporters.
Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which was called East Pakistan until its independence in 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 including allegedly by the members of Jamaat, collaborating with Pakistani forces.
The administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose father led the country to independence, established the tribunal in March 2010. But the court has since been hit by a series of controversies and criticisms.
It has no United Nations oversight or involvement while the United States has said the laws under which the alleged war crime suspects are being tried fall short of international standards.