One dead as Bangladesh Islamists protest death penalty

Violent protests erupted across Bangladesh on Wednesday leaving one person dead, police said, amid a nationwide strike over the death sentence given to a senior Islamist leader for mass murder.

Supporters of the country's largest Islamist party hurled bricks and small, home-made bombs during protests in southern and northern Bangladesh, while police retaliated with rubber bullets and tear gas, officers said.

A police officer was shot and seriously wounded by activists who attacked a police camp near the port city of Chittagong, a senior police officer said.

"His condition is critical," the city's police chief, Hafiz Akter, told AFP.

The violence came as towns and cities shut down for the strike called by the Jamaat-e-Islami party over the death sentence handed on Tuesday to Abdul Quader Molla for crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence.

An auto-rickshaw driver died after being hit with stones in the southern coastal district of Noakhali as Jamaat activists protested Molla's sentence, which they say is politically motivated.

"The auto-rickshaw driver came under attack from Jamaat supporters at a place called Talerchar this morning. He was hit by several stones," Anisur Rahman, the district's police chief, told AFP, adding the victim was declared dead at a local hospital.

The demonstrations are the latest to hit Bangladesh, which has been reeling from some of the deadliest violence since independence over the sentences given to Islamists for atrocities committed during the war against Pakistan.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court strengthened the sentence originally given to Molla by the country's war crimes tribunal, and rejected an appeal for acquittal by his defence lawyers.

Molla, 65, the fourth-highest leader of Jamaat, had been given a life sentence in February by the tribunal, then sparking deadly protests and riots by Islamists but also by secular activists on the other side who considered it too lenient.

Molla was convicted of rape, murder and mass murder including the killing of more than 350 unarmed Bengali civilians, a poet and a top journalist during the war, when he was a physics student at Dhaka University.

Prosecutors described him as the "Butcher of Mirpur", a Dhaka suburb where he committed most of the atrocities.

The tribunal has since January convicted six Islamists of crimes related to the 1971 war, in which pro-independence fighters battled Pakistani forces which were helped by local Islamist leaders.

The opposition has criticised the tribunal's trials as a politically motivated exercise aimed at settling old scores rather than meting out justice.

The government says three million people died during the war while independent estimates put the death toll at between 300,000 and 500,000.

The latest verdict could further inflame political tensions in the country, about four months before it holds elections. The main opposition party, an ally of Jamaat, leads in opinion polls.

In the northwestern city of Rajshahi and southern Satkhira town, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse scores of rock-throwing Jamaat protesters, police inspector Ziaur Rahman told AFP.

Protesters also lobbed home-made bombs at police in the capital Dhaka and in the southwestern city of Khulna during small street rallies, private television Channel 24 reported.

Police said security was tight in the capital with thousands of police and paramilitary border guards patrolling the streets.

Schools, shops and many offices were closed on the first day of the 48-hour strike. Inter-district motorways were empty and bus services suspended.