Bangladeshi Islamist leader, 91, convicted

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NEW DELHI -- A Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal sentenced an aged but still powerful Islamist to 90 years in jail for crimes committed during the country's 1971 war for independence from Pakistan, drawing fury from those who found the punishment either too harsh or too weak.

Ghulam Azam, who is 91 and in ill health, was convicted on all five major counts against him, including murder, conspiracy, and incitement and complicity to genocide. The tribunal concluded that a death sentence would have been appropriate for the charges, but instead handed down what is effectively life in prison.

Azam was part of a dedicated group of Islamists who were opposed to the Bangladeshi independence movement and actively collaborated with Pakistani military officials, the court found. Until 2000, he was the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, a small but well-organized Islamist party.

He is the third Islamist leader convicted in recent months for collaborating with Pakistani authorities during the 1971 war, in which as many as 3 million people were killed and more than 200,000 women raped, and an estimated 10 million people fled to India. Several more such verdicts are expected in coming months.

The trials and verdicts, part of a long-delayed reckoning with Bangladesh's birth, have led to violent strikes and deep unrest in Bangladesh, pitting members of Jamaat-e-Islami against youthful progressives who have demanded death sentences for the Islamist leaders.

Each side in the fight has repeatedly called for strikes that have paralyzed the country and wounded its economy, which was already reeling from disasters in its all-important textile industry, including the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed more than 1,100 people. Jamaat-e-Islami called for a strike Monday in advance of the expected verdict, and at least one person was beaten to death by political activists for failing to heed the strike call, according to local media reports.

Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, said that while both sides in the dispute were dissatisfied with the verdict announced Monday, he did not expect the same level of violence that followed previous verdicts. "Neither side got what they wanted," Mr. Rahman said.

Azam's lawyers have vowed to appeal.

When Pakistan lost the war, Azam moved abroad and formed a government-in-exile in London called the East Pakistan Restoration Committee. Bangladesh canceled his citizenship in 1973, and for years he traveled on a Pakistani passport. He returned to Bangladesh in 1978.

Azam was charged with directing atrocities that resulted in deaths and torture, and the court cited myriad news reports from the time to demonstrate that Azam was intimately involved in suppressing the Bengali independence movement.

Azam's lawyers responded that, as a politician, he was not directly involved in killings or torture, and that the procedures and documents used by the war crimes court were improper.

Since his arrest in January 2012, Azam largely has been confined to a prison cell at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital, but allowed home-cooked food.

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