TV evangelist sentenced to death by Bangladesh war crimes tribunal
A court probing Bangladesh's war of independence sentenced a top Islamic television evangelist to death in its first conviction.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who has been on the run for nine months, was sentenced to be hanged for genocide and murder committed during the 1971 war, judge Obaidul Hasan said.
Azad is a former senior member of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which campaigned against the war of separation from Pakistan and which stands accused of supporting or taking part in atrocities committed by Pakistani troops.
The courtroom was packed yesterday as Hassan, the head judge of a three-member tribunal, pronounced Azad, 63, guilty. Azad, well known as the presenter of a TV show on Islam, was tried in absentia after he reportedly fled to Pakistan from his home in Dhaka last April upon being charged.
Abdus Shukur Khan, Azad's appointed lawyer, 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 the war books," he said.
But prosecutor Shahidur Rahman said outside the tribunal that Azad, who sported a distinctive multi-coloured beard, became known as "Bachchu the collaborator" during the war in his home town in the southwestern district of Faridpur, where he was accused of murdering at least a dozen Hindus. "Six of them he shot dead himself and took part in a genocide," Rahman said.
The International Crimes Tribunal, which has no international oversight, was created by the government in 2010 to look into the war of independence and has been tainted by claims it is politically motivated.
"It's a historic day for the country. Bangladeshi people have been waiting for this day. They can now heave a sigh of relief since 1971," said Attorney General Mahbubey Alam.
In total, 11 senior opposition figures - nine from Jamaat and two from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party - stand accused of war crimes.
Bangladesh says that during the nine-month war, Pakistani troops, aided by local collaborators, killed three million people and raped about 200,000 women.
The administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed established the tribunal in March 2010, but it has been hit by a series of controversies.
Last month a judge resigned after it was revealed he was under pressure from the government to deliver a quick judgment, raising further questions about the fairness of the trials.
The government says the trials are fair and meet international standards.
Additional reporting by Associated Press