DHAKA - Bangladesh's war crimes court is set to deliver a verdict Tuesday against the leader of the country's largest Islamist party, who could face the death penalty for his alleged crimes during the 1971 independence struggle.
Motiur Rahman Nizami, 71, faces 16 charges ranging from mass killing to rape, arson and genocide, relating to violence committed by one of the most notorious militias during the war which he is suspected of leading.
A death sentence could trigger violent protests in the country as Nizami's Jamaat-e-Islami party has a strong grassroots base with hundreds of thousands of activists and supporters.
Similar verdicts including the execution of a senior Jamaat leader last year saw massive unrest nationwide as Islamists fought with security forces in towns and cities, leaving around 200 people dead.
Nizami, the president of Jamaat-e-Islami, pleaded not guilty and accuses the country's secular government of using the special war crimes court to target opposition leaders.
Prosecutors say Nizami was one of the chief architects of the mass killings of Bengalis in the 1971 independence war which saw Bangladesh emerge from what was then called East Pakistan.
The government says three million people died in the war. Independent researchers put the estimate between 300,000 and 500,000.
"He established the Al-Badr forces during the war to support the Pakistani army," prosecutor Mohammad Ali told AFP ahead of the verdict and the sentencing, which he said would come on Tuesday.
As head of Al Badr, he was involved "in committing crimes against humanity such as genocide, murder, rape and arson" as well as the murder of the country's top intellectuals, Ali said.
Nizami, a minister in the Islamist-allied government of 2001-6 is already on death row after being sentenced to death in January for trafficking weapons and trying to ship them to a rebel group in northeast India.
War crimes court 'biased'
Called the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), Bangladesh's war crimes court is a domestic authority with no international or United Nations oversight.
Rights groups have criticised the court, saying it falls short of international standards.
Since it was created in 2010 by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the ICT has sentenced about a dozen opposition leaders for war crimes.
These include Jamaat's war-time head and its assistant secretary general who was hanged in December last year.
Defence lawyers say the court is biased and is a "travesty of justice". They have accused the prosecution of forcing a witness to record false testimony against Nizami.
"We hope Nizami would walk a free man because the evidences submitted against him do not warrant any conviction," defence lawyer Tajul Islam told AFP.
"The court allowed 26 witnesses for the prosecution and only four for us. And they made conflicting claims about him," he added.
The latest verdict would be the first since Hasina won general elections in January, which were marred by widespread fraud and a boycott by all opposition parties.
Jamaat could not take part in the election after it was banned from contesting polls.