Bangladesh Court Commutes Death Sentence of Leading Islamist Politician

Delwar Hossain Sayedee Denied Playing Role in Atrocities During Country’s War for Liberation

Protesters in Dhaka scattered Wednesday as police used water to break up a demonstration against the commutation of Delwar Hossain Sayedee's death sentence to life in prison.

Protesters in Dhaka scattered Wednesday as police used water to break up a demonstration against the commutation of Delwar Hossain Sayedee’s death sentence to life in prison. ZUMA PRESS

DHAKA, Bangladesh—A Bangladeshi court commuted the death sentence of a senior opposition politician convicted of war crimes to life in prison Wednesday, sparking clashes in the capital.

An appellate bench of the Supreme Court sentenced Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, to life in prison for his role in atrocities committed during Bangladesh’s fight for liberation from Pakistan in 1971.

Mr. Sayedee, one of the country’s best-known Islamic preachers, was sentenced to death last year by a special tribunal that found him guilty of murder, rape and religious persecution during the war. He denied all charges. The sentencing triggered violence across the country in which dozens of people died.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in the 1971 war, many at the hands of Islamist militia who opposed independence and wanted Bangladesh—then East Pakistan—to remain part of Pakistan.

On Wednesday, a rival group of protesters took to the streets in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country, laying bare the deep divisions caused by the war crimes trials, which were started three years ago by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government. Ms. Hasina’s detractors say she has used the war crimes tribunals as a weapon to quiet her political opponents; she denies these claims.

Activists clashed with police in the University of Dhaka area shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision, demanding the death penalty for Mr. Sayedee and other men on trial for war crimes.

The Jamaat-e-Islami—Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, which often has allied itself with the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party against Ms. Hasina’s Awami League—called a nationwide strike for Thursday and Sunday in protest of the court ruling, which it said was flawed because Mr. Sayedee is innocent.

Bangladesh’s attorney general, Mahbubey Alam, said the state was disappointed with the sentence commutation.

“The court confirmed his guilt and ordered him to be imprisoned until the end of his biological life,” he said at a news conference. “I had hoped for the death sentence.”

Tajul Islam, a lawyer for Mr. Sayedee, who has been in prison since 2010, said the defense would seek a review of the appellate bench’s decision.

“My client is innocent, and we had hoped he would be acquitted on appeal,” he said. “The evidence against him was flawed, and there were numerous irregularities in the trial process.”

Mr. Sayedee’s original trial sparked controversy last year after a Human Rights Watch report said a key defense witness might have been abducted by security forces shortly before he was due to testify.

Tensions in Bangladesh have been particularly high in recent months, amid policy moves by the ruling Awami League that critics say are aimed at consolidating control over the country and silencing naysayers.

The opposition is calling for the government to withdraw a recent constitutional amendment that gives parliament the power to impeach Supreme Court judges. Some lawyers have argued the move would undermine judicial independence.

The ruling party has said the amendment is necessary to prevent misconduct in the judiciary branch.

Source: Wall Street Journal