Bangladesh shut down ahead of new war crimes verdict

People try to extinguish a fire set by activists of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party.

DHAKA - Bangladesh shut down for a third straight day on Wednesday as religious hardliners enforced a nationwide strike ahead of another verdict against a top Islamist for war crimes.

Shops and businesses were closed and main roads were largely deserted of cars in the capital Dhaka, for the strike called by supporters of the country's largest Islamic party.

Hundreds of rival secular protesters gathered at a central Dhaka square amid tight security, with thousands of police patrolling the streets on foot, AFP reporters said.

A local war crimes tribunal is expected later Wednesday to hand down its verdict against the second highest-ranked leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party for alleged crimes during the 1971 war of independence.

The verdict is the second this week by the International Crimes Tribunal after Jamaat's 90-year-old spiritual leader Ghulam Azam was convicted on Monday and sentenced to 90 years in prison for masterminding atrocities during the war.

That verdict prompted the nationwide strike by Jamaat supporters who took to the streets in violent protests with police that killed five people.

The trials have divided the country with secularists demanding the execution of all the accused, and Islamists branding the trials a sham, aimed at eliminating their leaders.

Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, 65, who could face the death penalty if convicted on Wednesday, was an influential minister in the 2001-2006 government headed by current opposition leader Khaleda Zia.

Mujahid, currently the secretary general of Jamaat, faces seven charges of murder, mass killing, torture, arson and abduction during the war of liberation against Pakistan.

The verdict will be the tribunal's sixth. Previous judgements have sparked widespread violence in a country with a population that is 90 per cent Muslim.

Some 155 people have been killed in the unrest, including the five this week.

Prosecutors have described Mujahid as a key architect of killings of intellectuals by militias that took place towards the end of the nine-month war.

"As the president of Jamaat's now defunct student wing, he was the chief of the notorious Al Badr militia between October and December in 1971," prosecutor Muklesur Rahman Badal told AFP.

"Al Badr was a killing squad. It carried out the abduction and killing of the intellectuals," he said.

Dozens of Bangladesh's top professors, journalists, doctors and writers were killed in December 1971 in the most gruesome chapter of the war, in which the government says three million people were killed in total.

The bodies of the intellectuals were found blindfolded and their hands tied in a marsh at the outskirts of the capital.