Bangladesh’s top court has rejected the appeal of an Islamist leader against his war crimes conviction, increasing his life sentence to the death penalty.
In February Abdul Kader Mullah, of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was convicted by a special tribunal of crimes during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.
The life sentence imposed at the time sparked angry street protests.
His supporters said the charges were politically motivated but his opponents said that sentence was too lenient.
Thousands staged vigils in Dhaka demanding the death penalty for Abdul Kader Mullah, who had been convicted of charges which included overseeing massacres during the bloody struggle for independence.
His conviction and subsequent sentences handed down to other Islamist leaders by the tribunal over the last few months unleashed a wave of unrest on the streets pitting supporters of Jamaat, who accuse the government of pursuing a political vendetta, against pro-government groups.
More than 100 people have been killed since January in these violent protests.
The assistant secretary general of Jamaat, Abdul Kader Mullah, 65, was convicted by the special war crimes tribunal of five out of six charges, including murder.
He was accused of being behind a series of killings including large-scale massacres in the Mirpur area of Dhaka, which earned him the nickname of “koshai” or butcher of Mirpur, and made him one of the more feared Jamaat leaders.
Mr Mullah, who denied all the charges, appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected his arguments on Tuesday and instead toughened the sentence.
Prosecutor Ziad Al Malum told AFP news agency that the decision to enhance the sentence was approved by four to one at the court.
Defence lawyer Tajul Islam told the agency he was “stunned” by the verdict.
“This is the first time in South Asian judicial history that a trial court sentence has been enhanced by a Supreme Court,” he said.
The special court was set up in 2010 by the current Bangladeshi government to deal with those accused of collaborating with Pakistani forces who attempted to stop East Pakistan (as Bangladesh was then) from becoming an independent country.
But human rights groups have said the tribunal falls short of international standards.
Bangladesh government figures estimate more than three million people were killed during the independence war. Other researchers put the figure at between 300,000 and 500,000.