DHAKA (AFP) – Bangladesh police fired rubber bullets at protesters on Monday, as violence erupted across the country ahead of the verdict on a top Islamist for allegedly masterminding atrocities during the 1971 liberation war.
Activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami party threw homemade bombs at police, after taking to the streets in cities in support of the Islamist, who could face the death penalty if convicted, officials said.
Journalists were among up to a dozen people injured, after they were caught in the clashes in Dhalpur district of the capital Dhaka, local police chief Rafiqul Islam said.
"One of the journalists was hit by (shrapnel)," he told AFP, adding the protesters hurled at least five small home-made bombs at police.
Police also fired rubber bullets at protesters in the cities of Bogra, Comilla and Rajshahi after activists went on the rampage, attacking and torching dozens of vehicles, police officials told AFP.
A war crimes tribunal in Dhaka is set to hand down its verdict against Ghulam Azam, 90, for alleged crimes committed during the independence war against Pakistan, which the government says killed three million people.
Prosecutors have sought the death penalty for Azam, comparing him to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. They describe him as a "lighthouse" who guided all war criminals and the "architect" of the militias which committed many of the 1971 atrocities.
When India intervened at the end of the nine-month 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 at a marsh outside the capital, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs.
Security was tight at the International Crimes Tribunal -- set up by the country's secular government in 2010 -- ahead of the verdict, set to be handed down on Monday.
Previous verdicts by the tribunal have sparked widespread and deadly violence on the streets of a country that has a 90 percent Muslim population.
The verdict against Azam will be the fifth to be delivered by the tribunal. Three Islamists have been sentenced to death and one given life imprisonment.
Jamaat, the country's largest Islamic party and a key member of the opposition, called a nationwide strike on Monday to protest the impending verdict, saying the war crimes trials are aimed at eliminating its leaders.
Azam is no longer politically active but is seen as Jamaat's spiritual leader. He faces five charges -- planning, conspiracy, incitement, complicity and murder and torture.
Azam's lawyer Tajul Islam said the charges were based on newspaper reports of speeches Azam gave during the war, which led to the creation of Bangladesh.
"The prosecution has completely failed to prove any of the charges," he told AFP.
Violence broke out in several cities on Sunday immediately after the tribunal announced its decision to pass the judgement on Monday.
The opposition has criticised the cases as politically motivated and aimed at settling old scores rather than meting out justice.
Unlike other war crimes courts, the Bangladesh tribunal is not endorsed by the United Nations. The New York-based Human Rights Watch group has said its procedures fall short of international standards.
The government maintains the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the 1971 war in which it says three million died. Independent estimates put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000.