A Bangladesh tribunal sentenced an Islamist party leader to death on Thursday, the third verdict by the court set up to investigate abuses during the country's independence war, and two people were killed in protests by his supporters.
Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 73, vice-president of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty of charges of mass killing, rape, arson, looting and forcing minority Hindus to convert to Islam during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, lawyers and tribunal officials said.
The religious party, known as Jamaat, called for a day-long countrywide strike in anticipation of the verdict against Sayedee, the third senior party member convicted by the tribunal.
Police said at least two people were killed and dozens injured in clashes between Jamaat activists and police. Disturbances were expected to spread, police said.
In the capital, authorities deployed extra police and members of a rapid response force and put paramilitary soldiers on standby, a Home Ministry official told reporters.
Thousands of people in the capital's Shahbag square, who support the tribunal and have been protesting for weeks to demand the "highest penalty" for war criminals, burst into cheers as the verdict was announced.
Sayedee looked defiant and remained calm in the dock as it was read out, witnesses said.
"I didn't commit any crime and the judges are not giving the verdict from the core of their heart," Sayedee told the court.
"They are submitting to the excessive pressure from Shahbag," he said, referring to the protests backing the tribunal.
State prosecutor Haider Ali told reporters he was happy with the verdict which he said "appropriately demonstrated justice".
Defense attorney Abdur Razzak said the sentence was politically motivated. "He is a victim of sheer injustice. We will appeal," he said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the tribunal in 2010 to investigate abuses during the independence war that claimed about 3 million lives and during which thousands of women were raped.
The tribunal has been criticized by rights groups for failing to adhere to international standards of due process. Human Rights Watch cited defense lawyers, witnesses and investigators as saying they had been threatened.
Critics say the tribunal is being used by the prime minister as an instrument against her opponents in the two biggest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Begum Khaleda Zia, Hasina's arch rival and leader of the BNP, has called the tribunal a "farce".
Hasina's party has denied allegations of bias.
On January 21, the tribunal sentenced Abul Kalam Azad, a former Jamaat member to death in absentia after he was found guilty of torture, rape and genocide during the independence war.
In its second verdict, on February 5, the tribunal sentenced another senior Jamaat member, Abdul Quader Mollah, 64, to life in prison after he was found guilty of charges including murder, rape, torture and arson.
Both of the verdicts sparked protests by Jamaat supporters.
But those protests incited larger counter-demonstrations by supporters of the tribunal demanding death sentences for all those responsible for abuses during the war.
At least 14 people have been killed in days of protests by both sides across the country that have followed.
Another nine people are awaiting trial, most of them Jamaat members.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. But the country then known as East Pakistan won independence with India's help in December 1971 following a nine-month war against the then West Pakistan.
Some factions in Bangladesh opposed the break with Pakistan, including the Jamaat. Jamaat leaders have denied involvement in abuses.