Protesters clashed with police for a second day Friday as the death toll rose to at least 44 in clashes triggered by a death sentence given to an Islamic party leader for crimes linked to Bangladesh's 1971 independence war, police said. The latest fighting broke out in northern Gainbandha and Chapainawabganj districts, killing two people, police officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity as they are not allowed to speak publicly. At least 42 people were killed Thursday in rioting triggered by the death sentence given to Delwar Hossain Sayedee, one of the top leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamic party. In Dhaka, dozens of Jamaat supporters smashed several vehicles in central Malibagh district, witnesses said. Baton-wielding police dispersed the protesters.
Jamaat had called for protests after Friday's Islamic prayers, and authorities responded by dispatching thousands of police and paramilitary troops to clamp down on Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. Jamaat urged its supporters to converge on mosques to offer a special mass prayer for those killed during the violence Thursday. Private Ekattor TV reported that Jamaat supporters set up roadblocks in parts of the country, cutting off travel.
"We must stay alert. Jamaat and its allies are trying to plunge the nation into anarchy," Junior Law Minister Quamrul Islam said. "We will not allow them to destroy democracy." Passions have boiled over in recent weeks as tribunals have tried suspects on accusations they committed crimes during the country's war for independence from Pakistan. Bangladesh says as many as 3 million people were killed and 200,000 women raped by Pakistani troops and local collaborators during the fighting. Thousands of students turned a Dhaka intersection into a protest camp last month demanding the execution of one Jamaat leader given a life sentence after his conviction for mass killings.
Sayedee, was sentenced to death for mass killings, rape and atrocities committed during the bloody nine-month war. His supporters responded by pouring into the streets, where they clashed with police, attacked government offices and uprooted railway tracks in parts of the country. Protesters also set fire to dozens of houses belonging to government supporters. Police responded with bullets and tear gas. Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party spokesman Mirza Fakhrul Islam accused security forces of deliberately killing the protesters.
"It was another form of mass killings," he told reporters Friday. "We must stand up against such brutalities." Jamaat is an ally of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by ex-Premier Khaleda Zia and was a partner in her government during 2001-2006. Jamaat has also called for a nationwide general strike Sunday and Monday to denounce the verdict. At a news conference Friday, Zia called also for a nationwide general strike on Tuesday.
"This government has surpassed all records of suppressing the opposition. We must protest," said Zia. Sayedee, a teacher at an Islamic seminary school when he allegedly committed the crimes, is the third defendant to be convicted of war crimes by the special tribunal set up in 2010. His lawyer Abdur Razzak rejected the verdict as politically motivated. He said his client will appeal to the country's Supreme Court. Prosecutor Syed Haider Ali said he was satisfied with the verdict.
"Justice has been done to those who lost their loved ones at the hands of Sayedee," he said. Jamaat, the largest Islamic party in Bangladesh, campaigned against Bangladesh's independence, but denies it was behind any atrocities.