DHAKA, Bangladesh — A Bangladesh tribunal sentenced an Islamic cleric formerly tied to a fundamentalist party to death on Monday for crimes against humanity for his actions during the country's 1971 independence war.
The conviction of Abul Kalam Azad was the first verdict handed down by a controversial tribunal trying people accused of committing crimes during the war.
Azad, a former senior member of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was tried in absentia after he reportedly fled to Pakistan last April upon being charged. He was expelled from the party.
Jamaat-e-Islami campaigned in 1971 against Bangladesh's war of separation from Pakistan. The party stands accused of supporting or in some cases taking part in atrocities committed by Pakistani troops.
The government has appointed a defense counsel for Azad, widely known for his regular appearance on a television channel and for his colored beard, but the counsel said he did not get support from his family to present witnesses against the prosecution charges.
His two sons and a son-in-law were arrested last year after Azad reportedly fled the country. They told reporters that Azad fled the country hours before security officials raided his home in Dhaka.
Bangladesh says that during the nine-month war, Pakistani troops, aided by their local collaborators, killed 3 million people and raped about 200,000 women.
International human rights groups have raised questions about the conduct of the tribunals set up by the government to prosecute those accused of war crimes.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has complained about flaws in the process – including the disappearance of a defense witness outside the courthouse gates.
The judge presiding over another tribunal resigned last month after the British publication The Economist reported that it had conversations of Skype and email conversations between him and a Belgium-based Bangladeshi lawyer that raised serious questions about the workings of the tribunal.
The courtroom was packed Monday as Obaidul Hassan, the head judge of a separate, three-member tribunal, pronounced Azad guilty Monday of crimes including murder, abduction and looting.
Hassan said Azad was "guilty of crimes against humanity beyond a reasonable doubt."
A former chief of Jamaat-e-Islami and its other top leaders also face prosecution. Two other men from opposition leader Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party also stand trial.
Jamaat-e-Islami – a key partner in Zia's former government – says the charges are politically motivated. Authorities deny the claim.
Zia, the longtime political rival of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has called the tribunal a farce. Hasina, in turn, has urged Zia to stop backing those she says fought against the nation's quest for independence.
A Hasina-led political alliance highlighted the issue of trying suspected war criminals during the last election campaign. The alliance clinched a landslide victory against Zia-led coalition that included Jamaat-e-Islami.