DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh’s Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected final appeals from two opposition leaders against death sentences for atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence, rulings that are likely to spark protests by their supporters.
Muslim-majority Bangladesh has seen a rise in Islamist violence in recent months, with two foreigners and four secular writers and a publisher killed this year.
Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, 67, secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty of five charges including torture and the murders of intellectuals and minority Hindus while he commanded Al Badr, an auxiliary force of the Pakistani army, during the war to break away from Pakistan.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, 66, former legislator from former premier Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was convicted in October 2013 on charges of genocide, religious persecution, abduction and torture during the war.
“The entire nation is happy with the verdicts,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told reporters outside the packed court amid tight security.
The rulings mean the two could be hanged at any time unless they seek mercy from the president.
Mujahid, social welfare minister from 2001 to 2006 under Khaleda, would be the first former minister and the third to be hanged while Chowdhury would be the first BNP leader to go to the gallows unless they are granted clemency.
“It is up to them whether they want to seek mercy or not,” defense counsel Khandaker Mahbub Hossain told reporters.
Just a few hours before the rulings, an Italian priest and doctor was wounded in the latest attack on foreigners in Bangladesh. Islamic State militants have claimed responsibility for earlier attacks on foreigners.
The government, however, rejected Islamic State’s claim and blamed the growing violence in Bangladesh on its domestic political opponents linked to Islamist parties.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened an inquiry in 2010 into abuses committed during the war that Islamists and Khaleda’s party have denounced as part of a politically motivated campaign to weaken the opposition.
Two Jamaat leaders have been executed, one in December 2013 and another in April. They declined to seek clemency from the president.
Extra security forces have been deployed in Dhaka and other parts of the country as similar judgments in the past triggered violence that left around 200 dead, mainly Jamaat activists and police.
Jamaat called a nationwide strike on Thursday in protest.
Hundreds of people came out on Dhaka’s streets to cheer the verdicts while there have been no reports of violence so far.
The government ordered the blocking of Facebook and online messaging and calling services WhatsApp and Viber for security reasons, a telecom regulatory official said.
U.S. lawmakers and international human rights groups say the tribunal’s procedures fall short of international standards.
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, set up by the U.S. Congress, has expressed “serious concerns” over the death penalties.
Defense counsel for Mujahid were intimidated and arrested, the commission said this week citing reports, while premier Hasina’s reported call to “try the war criminals quickly” raised concerns over whether due process had been observed.
No Peace Without Justice, a non-profit organization based in Italy, has called the tribunal’s proceedings “a weapon of politically influenced revenge whose real aim is to target the political opposition”.
The government denies the accusations.
East Pakistan broke away to become independent Bangladesh after the war between India and Pakistan. About three million people were killed.
Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Nick Macfie