Bangladesh’s highest court on Wednesday commuted the death sentence on a top Islamic preacher, triggering angry protests by both his Islamist 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 the ruling.
“We had expected that the court would uphold his death sentence,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said.
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.
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 Islamist party of which Sayedee was the vice president, accusing its leaders of atrocities committed during the war.
Meanwhile, Jamaat, blamed for last year’s violence, called a two-day nationwide strike starting from Thursday.