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91-year-old ex-chief of Islamic party in Bangladesh gets 90 years in jail for 1971 war crimes

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DHAKA, Bangladesh - A 91-year-old former chief of an Islamic party in Bangladesh was sentenced to 90 years in jail on Monday for crimes against humanity during the country's 1971 independence war, angering both supporters who said the trial was politically motivated and opponents who said he should be executed.

A special tribunal of three judges announced the decision against Ghulam Azam in a packed courtroom in Dhaka, the capital. The panel said the former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party deserved capital punishment, but received a jail sentence instead because of his advanced age and poor health.

Azam was in the dock when the verdict was delivered while protesters outside rallied to demand his execution. Both the defence and the prosecution said they will appeal.

Azam led Jamaat-e-Islami in then-east Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh became independent through a bloody war. He is among several Jamaat-e-Islami leaders convicted by a tribunal formed in 2010 by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to try those accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army in the war.

Bangladesh says the Pakistani army killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war, and some 10 million people took shelter across the border in India.

Azam led the party until 2000 and is still considered to be its spiritual leader. Jamaat-e-Islami claims his trial and others were politically motivated, which authorities deny. The party called for a nationwide shutdown after the tribunal announced Sunday it would have the verdict Monday.

Violence has followed previous verdicts, and news outlets including the Daily Star newspaper said at least three Jamaat-e-Islami activists were killed in parts of Bangladesh on Monday. Two were beaten to death by opposition activists in southwestern Kushtia district as they tried to block a road. One was killed in northwestern Chapainawabganj district when paramilitary border guards opened fire after a bomb was thrown at police.

Police clashed with party supporters in parts of Dhaka while party activists set fire to a few vehicles that tried to defy the strike call, the Bengali-language Prothom Alo newspaper reported.

Police fired rubber bullets to disperse an opposition procession in Dhaka's Jatrabari area, and some photographers and cameramen were injured in the chaos, the newspaper said.

The tribunal said Azam was guilty of all 61 charges under five categories: conspiracy, incitement, planning, abetment and failure to prevent killing.

He and his party were accused of forming citizens' brigades to commit genocide and other serious crimes against the pro-independence fighters during the war.

Azam had openly campaigned against the creation of Bangladesh and toured the Middle East to get support in favour of Pakistan. He routinely met with Pakistan authorities during the war. A mouthpiece of the party routinely published statements by Azam and his associates calling for crushing the fighters who fought against the Pakistani military in 1971.

The prosecution in the trial said Azam must take "command responsibility" for months of atrocities perpetrated by his supporters.

Mahbubul Alam Hanif, a leader of the ruling Awami League, said he had expected capital punishment for Azam, but still he was happy that he was finally tried.

The verdict created resentment among the family members of those killed in 1971.

"Our wait for last 42 years has gone in vain. It's extremely frustrating," said Shyamoli Nasrin Chowdhury, the widow of a physician who was killed in 1971. "This verdict has just increased our pain."

Earlier in the morning, Azam was taken to the tribunal from a prison cell in a government hospital, where he was being treated for various complications, amid tight security as his party enforced the nationwide general strike to denounce the verdict.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, has criticized the tribunal, saying it is intended to weaken the opposition. Jamaat-e-Islami is the main political ally of Zia's party.

Hasina's government says it had pledged before the 2008 election — which it won in a landslide — to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.

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