Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party and a key member of the opposition, has called a nationwide strike to protest the verdict in the case against Ghulam Azam (90), saying the war crimes trials are aimed at eliminating its leaders.

A Bangladeshi court Monday sentenced Azam to 90 years in prison for masterminding atrocities during the 1971 independence war, amid deadly clashes between his supporters and police.

Azam, the wartime head of Jamaat and now its spiritual leader, is the fifth person convicted at the war crimes court. He was spared the death penalty because of his age and health, a senior government lawyer said.

Violence erupted across Bangladesh ahead of the judgement, with Azam’s supporters clashing with police and paramilitary troops. They responded with rubber bullets and in some cases live rounds, officials said.

One protester was killed in the northwestern town of Shibganj, after paramilitary troops fired at Jamaat activists hurling homemade bombs, local police chiefs told AFP. A low-level official from the ruling party was beaten to death by suspected Jamaat supporters in the district of Satkhira, the police chiefs said.

Previous verdicts by the tribunal have plunged the country into political violence that has left at least 150 people dead.

Announcing the verdict, the tribunal said Azam held “superior responsibility” for the atrocities committed by militias which he helped to create to support the Pakistani army during the war.

“It has been proved that Ghulam Azam was the architect of the militia groups including Peace Committee, Al Badr, Rajakar,” judge A.T.M. Fazle Kabir told the packed tribunal.

When India intervened at the end of the war and it became clear Pakistan was losing, the militias killed dozens of professors, playwrights, filmmakers, doctors and journalists.

Azam was described as the mastermind of the massacres of the intellectuals. Many of their bodies were found a few days after the war in a marsh outside the capital, blindfolded and with hands tied behind their backs.

Azam’s lawyer Tajul Islam pledged to appeal, saying the charges were based on paper reports of speeches Azam gave during the war.Jamaat and secular groups have called for rival nationwide strikes on Tuesday, raising the spectre of more clashes.

In the capital several thousand secular protesters gathered to reject the verdict as too lenient. “If he doesn’t deserve death, who does?” said student activist Lukcy Akter in a central Dhaka square. — AFP

Jamaat and secular groups have called for rival nationwide strikes on Tuesday