Huge Bangladesh rally seeks death penalty for war crimes

Demonstration in central Dhaka - 8 February People from all walks of life went to the demonstration

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Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have joined protests in Dhaka to demand the death penalty for a political leader convicted of war crimes.

Protests have grown since Abdul Kader Mullah was given life on Tuesday for crimes including torture, murder and rape during the 1971 independence war.

Supporters of Mullah's party, the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, held protests calling for his release.

The party says Mullah is the victim of a political vendetta.

Ten others are on trial, including eight other Jamaat members and two members of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one a former minister.

They are accused of atrocities during the 1971 war when Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan, fought to secede from Pakistan.

At the scene

Bloggers and social media enthusiasts in Bangladesh are calling it the "Tahrir of Dhaka". The wide intersection next to the Dhaka University campus where two major avenues converge is actually called Shahbag.

But the events of the last few days have turned this busy intersection into the focal point of one of the biggest protests in the country's history - and the first triggered by social media.

Many people were shocked that Abdul Kader Mullah was not given the death sentence. There was anger among the youth. Some suspected an underhand deal between the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Jamaat.

Others felt the prosecution was poorly prepared and did not present enough evidence for the judges to award the highest punishment available to them.

Many feared that weeks of violence aimed at the police by Jamaat cadres across the country had exerted enough pressure on the judges. Within 24 hours of the verdict, a network of bloggers called on their fellows to gather at Shahbag.

The authorities say the defendants opposed independence and either fought alongside or actively supported the West Pakistan authorities.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made prosecuting war crimes a key goal of her government.

Jamaat is an ally of the BNP, Sheikh Hasina's bitter political rivals.

Mullah is the second defendant to be found guilty by the special tribunal.

Last month, former Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad was sentenced to death in absentia.

'Biggest in years'

Thousands have been holding vigils in Dhaka throughout the week calling for a ban on the J-e-I and the death penalty for party leaders on trial, on the grounds that they were involved in mass killings.

The organisers called for a grand rally on Friday, a weekend day in Bangladesh, to urge the authorities to reconsider Mullah's life sentence.

Protesters used social media to boost numbers at the rally.

The BBC's Anbarasan Ethirajan in Dhaka says there has been an unusual outpouring of feeling.

People from all walks of life, with doctors, professors and even sports personalities taking part in what is described as the biggest protest march in recent years, he says.

Shahbag Square in Dhaka has a festive look, with people holding various cultural events as part of the protest, our correspondent adds.

Police with suspected Jamaat-e-Islami supporter in Dhaka - 6 February Mullah's supporters clashed with police earlier in the week

"We will not return home unless we get justice, complete justice," Shakil Ahmed, a college student, told the Associated Press news agency.

"I did not see 1971, but those who killed our people and helped Pakistani troops in their effort to halt the creation of Bangladesh should be hanged."

Mullah, 64, the assistant secretary general of Jamaat, was found guilty of being behind a series of killings.

They included massacres in the Mirpur area of Dhaka that earned him the nickname "koshai [butcher] of Mirpur", and made him one of the more feared Jamaat leaders.

Official estimates say more than three million people were killed in the 1971 war.

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