DHAKA (AFP) – Bangladesh’s highest court on Wednesday commuted the death sentence on a top Islamic preacher, triggering angry protests by both his supporters and secular opponents and clashes with police.
In a surprise ruling, the Supreme Court said 74-year-old Delwar Hossain Sayedee should spend “the rest of his natural life” in jail for crimes during the 1971 liberation war with Pakistan.
Sayedee’s death penalty passed last year by a war-crimes tribunal triggered the deadliest political violence in the country’s history, and thousands of police were deployed before Wednesday’s ruling.
“We had expected that the court would uphold his death sentence,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told AFP, adding that he was unhappy with the verdict.
Alam said Sayedee was a war criminal and “torturer of women” who had forcibly converted minority Hindus to Islam during the nine-month conflict, which led to the creation of Bangladesh from former East Pakistan.
Bangladeshi police use tear gas to try to break up a demonstration against a court ruling commuting the death sentence of Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee in Dhaka on September 17. Bangladesh’s highest court on September 17 commuted the death sentence on a top preacher. In a surprise ruling, the Supreme Court said 74-year-old Delwar Hossain Sayedee should spend “the rest of his natural life” in jail for crimes during the 1971 liberation war with Pakistan – AFP
Violence erupted between police and hundreds of angry secular demonstrators who converged on Dhaka University after Wednesday’s verdict to protest at perceived leniency.
Armed with batons, police fired tear gas and a water cannon to try to disperse the demonstrators who shouted slogans and threw stones at officers.
“This is part of negotiations between the government and the Jamaat-e-Islami party,” said protest leader Imran Sarker, whom police said was among seven people injured.
Secular activists have long called for the banning of Jamaat, the country’s largest religious party of which Sayedee was the vice president, accusing its leaders of atrocities committed during the war.
Jamaat, blamed for last year’s violence, called a two-day nationwide strike starting from Thursday. It said Sayedee was prosecuted on “false and fabricated” charges.
Its activists clashed with police in the northwestern city of Rajshahi, where officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas, TV footage showed.
Sayedee shot to prominence in the 1980s after he started preaching in some of the Muslim-majority nation’s top mosques. In his heyday he would draw hundreds of thousands to his sessions and CDs of his speeches were top sellers.
Many of his supporters even claimed to have seen his face on the moon in a mark of his “saintly” status.
His conviction in February 2013 on eight charges of murder, rape and persecution of Hindus sparked riots by tens of thousands of supporters nationwide, leaving more than 100 people dead.