Dhaka: Bangladesh`s top court Wednesday upheld the death sentence handed down to a top opposition politician for atrocities committed during the 1971 independence war, including the slaughter of around 200 Hindus.
The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice SK Sinha, dismissed Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury`s appeal against a death sentence handed down by a controversial war crimes tribunal two years ago.
It was the first time a senior politician of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had been sentenced for his role in the conflict, which saw what was then East Pakistan secede from Islamabad.
The 66-year-old leader was originally found guilty by the International Crimes Tribunal, a controversial domestic war crimes court, of nine charges including genocide, torture and rape.
Chowdhury, whose father was a former speaker of Pakistan and also served as its acting president, has previously served as an advisor to BNP leader and two times former premier Khaleda Zia.
Police stepped up security in Dhaka and Chowdhury`s home city of Chittagong ahead of the judgement.
Although BNP had condemned the war crimes trials as "politically motivated", major protests against the verdict were unlikely.
The party has been weakened by a major crackdown earlier this year when it launched a futile three-month long nationwide transport blockade in an effort to topple the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Previous verdicts against Islamist politicians have sparked the country`s deadliest political violence since independence. Hundreds of people were killed as police brutally suppressed tens of thousands of rioting Islamists. "We have boosted security in key places in Dhaka and Chittagong," assistant commissioner of Dhaka police Shibly Noman told AFP.
Prosecutors said Chowdhury would be sent to the gallows within a matter of months unless his case is reviewed by the same court or he is granted clemency by the president.
All previous attempts to review war crimes cases or obtain a presidential reprieve have failed.
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told reporters that he was "satisfied" with the verdict.
But defence lawyer Khandaker Mahbub Hossain said Chowdhury`s legal team was disappointed and would seek a review of the judgement at the same court.
"My father is innocent. One day it will be proved to the people of Bangladesh," Chowdhury`s son Hummam Q Chowdhury told AFP.
Hundreds of protesters including ruling party activists staged "victory processions" as news of the verdict reached the capital`s Shahbagh Square where they had been massing since dawn.
Prosecutors described Chowdhury, a minister in the previous BNP-led government, as a merciless killer who murdered more than 200 Hindus, including the owner of a well-known herbal medicine company.
His trial was told that Chowdhury had dragged owner Nutan Chandra Sinha out of his prayer room and Pakistani soldiers had then shot him.
"Chowdhury then shot him again to make sure he was dead," prosecutor Zead Al Malum told AFP after the original verdict.
The BNP and its Islamist allies have said the tribunal is a tool for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina`s Awami League to silence its opponents.
Bangladesh has struggled to come to terms with its violent birth, in which what was then East Pakistan split from Islamabad to become independent.
The government set up the tribunal in 2010, saying trials were needed to heal the wounds of the 1971 war, in which it says three million people were killed and 200,000 women raped.
Independent estimates put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000.