DHAKA - Bangladesh's highest court on Wednesday commuted the death sentence on a top Islamic preacher, triggering angry protests by both his Islamist supporters and secular opponents and clashes with police.
In a surprise ruling, the Supreme Court said 74-year-old Delwar Hossain Sayedee should spend "the rest of his natural life" in jail for crimes during the 1971 liberation war with Pakistan.
Sayedee's death penalty passed last year by a war-crimes tribunal triggered the deadliest political violence in the country's history, and thousands of police were deployed before Wednesday's ruling.
"We had expected that the court would uphold his death sentence," Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told AFP, adding that he was unhappy with the verdict.
Alam said Sayedee was a war criminal and "torturer of women" who had forcibly converted minority Hindus to Islam during the nine-month conflict, which led to the creation of Bangladesh from former East Pakistan.
Violence erupted between police and hundreds of secular demonstrators who converged on Dhaka University after Wednesday's verdict to protest at perceived leniency.
Armed with batons, police fired tear gas and a water cannon to try to disperse the demonstrators who shouted slogans and threw stones at officers.
"This is part of negotiations between the government and the Jamaat-e-Islami party," said protest leader Imran Sarker, whom police said was among seven people injured.
Secular activists have long called for the banning of Jamaat, the country's largest Islamist party of which Sayedee was the vice president, accusing its leaders of atrocities committed during the war.
Jamaat, blamed for last year's violence, called a two-day nationwide strike starting from Thursday, saying Sayedee was prosecuted on "false and fabricated" charges.
Some 2,000 of its activists clashed with police in the northwestern city of Rajshahi, where officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas, deputy police commissioner Nahidul Islam said.
"They staged protests in a regimented way and threw several cocktail bombs, forcing police to retaliate. We also arrested about 20 Jamaat activists," he told AFP.
Clashes also broke out between Jamaat protesters and police in several other towns, leaving more than 40 people injured, online news portal Banglanews24 said.
Sayedee shot to prominence in the 1980s after he started preaching in some of the Muslim-majority nation's top mosques. In his heyday he would draw hundreds of thousands to his sessions and CDs of his speeches were top sellers.
Many of his supporters even claimed to have seen his face on the moon in a mark of his "saintly" status.
His conviction in February 2013 on eight charges of murder, rape and persecution of Hindus sparked riots by thousands of supporters nationwide, leaving more than 100 people dead.
Sayedee's lawyer said he was dissatisfied with the latest ruling, adding his client should have been acquitted on all charges.
"The evidence against him does not warrant conviction or sentencing even for a day," lawyer Tajul Islam told AFP.
Sayedee is among about a dozen Islamic leaders to have been convicted by the much-criticised tribunal set up by the secular government to investigate crimes during the 1971 war.
Islamists say its trials are more about settling scores than delivering justice.
The Islamists convicted so far were all accused of being leaders of pro-Pakistani militias who were behind the murder of thousands of people including some of Bangladesh's top professors, writers, journalists and doctors.
Last December one of Sayedee's top colleagues was hanged after the tribunal found him guilty of war crimes.
Rights groups say legal procedures at the tribunal fall short of international standards.
The government rejects the accusations, saying the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the war that it claims killed three million people.
Independent estimates put the number of deaths between 300,000 and 500,000.