DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A tribunal ordered the former chief of Bangladesh's largest Islamic party jailed Wednesday pending trial on charges he instigated deadly rampages against civilians during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
Ghulam Azam, 89, a regional chief of Jamaat-e-Islami during the war and later the party's leader in Bangladesh, is accused of having command-level authority in attacks — including slayings, arson, rape and looting — by then-Pakistani soldiers and their collaborators on people in what was then eastern Pakistan.
The International Crimes Tribunal in the capital, Dhaka, denied Azam's request for bail Wednesday and ordered him jailed while awaiting a trial, which is expected by next year.
Azam denies the charges, and his supporters say the case against him is politically motivated. Trying the 1971 war crimes is a challenge for the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in part because many of the key defendants are her bitter political enemies.
International groups, including the New York-based Human Rights Watch, have urged the Bangladesh to ensure war crimes defendants receive fair trials by clarifying the definition of charges and allowing the accused to question the tribunal's impartiality — currently not allowed under Bangldeshi law.
Despite Azam's retirement from Jamaat-e-Islami in 2000, he is still thought to be the de facto leader of the party, a fierce rival of the ruling Awami League party led by Hasina, who is the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Jamaat-e-Islami is a key partner of a political alliance led by former prime minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia. Two leaders of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party face similar charges.
Azam went into exile after Pakistani soldiers surrendered to a joint force led by India on Dec. 16, 1971 and returned in 1978. He became party chief in 1991.
Azam arrived at Wednesday's hearing in a wheelchair and his lawyer, Abdur Razzaq, said he had sought bail citing health complications. He said the denial of bail was wrong, and noted that Bangladeshi law related to the war crimes trial does not allow the defense to challenge the ruling in a higher court during the trial process.
But any person convicted for war crimes will be able to appeal the final verdict of the tribunal in the Supreme Court.
The three-judge panel, created by Hasina's government in March 2010, also set Feb. 15 for a hearing on charges for a possible indictment.