Bangladesh's Parliament amends war crimes law

Bangladesh's Parliament amended the country's war crimes law on Sunday, allowing prosecutors to appeal the life sentence given to an opposition leader for his role in mass killings during the 1971 war for independence.

Prior to the passing of three amendments to the 1973 law, only a defendant could appeal a sentence.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said in Parliament that the changes were retroactive to July 2009, allowing state prosecutors to appeal the life sentence handed down to Abdul Quader Mollah for his role in the killing of 381 civilians during the independence war against Pakistan. The prosecution had sought the death penalty for Mollah, and many Bangladeshis took part in mass protests demanding he be executed.

Mollah is a leader of Bangladesh's largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-islami.

Legal analyst Shahdeen Malik said that the amendments would strengthen the law, and that the country's legal system could be counted on to give verdicts based on evidence and not simply in response to street pressure.

But New York-based Human Rights Watch has criticized the amendments, saying that passing retroactive laws to overturn unpopular verdicts violates the country's commitment to protect the rights of defendants.

Nine other top leaders of Mollah's party, including its chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, are on trial on charges of atrocities during the nine-month war.

Last month, a war crimes tribunal sentenced Islamic cleric Abul Kalam Azad, a former member of Jamaat-e-islami, to death for his role in mass killings and rape during the war.

Jamaat, a key ally of Bangladesh's main opposition party, campaigned against Bangladesh's war of separation from Pakistan, but it denies committing atrocities.

Jamaat has held a series of protests to demand that the government stop the trials and free its leaders, and has called for a nationwide general strike for Monday.

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