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Condemned Islamist leader wins 11th hour reprieve in Bangladesh

Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah gestures as he talks from a police van after a war crimes tribunal sentenced him to
Bangladesh's Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah gestures as he talks from a police van after a war crimes tribunal sentenced him to

By Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) - An Islamist opposition leader in Bangladesh won a dramatic stay of execution on Tuesday hours before he was due to be hanged, according to his lawyers, allaying fears for now of a violent backlash less than a month before elections are due.

Abdul Quader Mollah, who was found guilty in February of war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, was due to be hanged at one minute past midnight (1801 GMT) at Dhaka Central Jail.

But Mollah's lawyers rushed to petition a judge, who agreed to delay the execution pending a hearing at 10.30 a.m.

Ending widespread confusion and conflicting reports, Additional Attorney General M. K. Rahman finally confirmed the two sides in the case would meet at the Supreme Court.

He said there was no legal provision for the execution to be reviewed, because the trial had been held by a special war crimes tribunal and thus under separate law.

Mollah is assistant secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which is barred from contesting elections but plays a key role in the opposition movement alongside the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Critics say Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose bitter rivalry with BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia has dominated politics for more than two decades, has used the tribunal to target Jamaat and weaken the opposition.

Human rights groups say the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) procedures fall short of international standards.

Previous rulings by the ICT, set up in 2010 to investigate atrocities during the 1971 conflict, sparked deadly clashes across the impoverished nation of 160 million people.

Sporadic violence broke out on Tuesday, including in the southern district of Feni where one person was killed in clashes between police and Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat, police said.

Jamaat activists also torched vehicles and exploded crude bombs in Dhaka and the port city of Chittagong.

In Dhaka, hundreds of people who supported the tribunal angrily chanted for Mollah's execution to be carried out.

ELECTION ROW

The latest bone of contention between Khaleda and Hasina is the election, which has been set for January 5.

The BNP wants to postpone the vote until after the formation of a caretaker cabinet that would remove Hasina from power, a demand the prime minister has so far resisted.

The announcement of plans for Mollah's execution initially dashed hopes that the two sides could be edging towards a compromise.

Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, United Nations assistant secretary general for political affairs, has been in Bangladesh for the last four days seeking to break the deadlock.

Bangladesh has been racked by violent protests sparked by the tribunal's rulings, disagreements over the election, and anger among garment workers over low pay and poor conditions.

Nearly 200 people have been killed and thousands wounded in running street battles between protesters and police across Bangladesh, and many roads and railways remain blocked.

The unrest threatens the $22 billion garment export industry, the country's economic mainstay which employs some four million people, most of them women.

The industry, which supplies many Western brands, came under scrutiny when a building housing factories collapsed in April, killing more than 1,130 people.

Bangladesh was part of Pakistan when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned at the end of British rule in 1947; but it broke away from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-month war.

Some factions in Bangladesh, including Jamaat, opposed the break with Pakistan, but the party denies accusations that its leaders committed murder, rape and torture.

About three million people were killed, according to official figures, and thousands of women were raped.

(Writing by Mike Collett-White; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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