By Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh executed Islamist opposition leader Abdul Quader Mollah on Thursday for war crimes he committed in 1971, in a move likely to spark more violent protests less than a month before elections are due to be held.
Mollah was hanged at Dhaka Central Jail after a dramatic week. He won a reprieve on Tuesday hours before he was to be sent to the gallows.
After two days of legal argument, the Supreme Court rejected his application for a review of the death penalty.
Hundreds of people in the center of the capital Dhaka cheered and punched the air in celebration, underlining how Mollah's case has divided opinion in the impoverished South Asian nation of 160 million.
"Justice has been served, though we had to wait for 42 years," said university student Afzal Hossain.
At least five people were killed earlier on Thursday in clashes between opposition activists angered by the decision to execute Mollah and police near the port city of Chittagong. Police fired tear gas and vehicles were torched.
Mollah was assistant secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which is barred from contesting elections but plays a key role in the opposition movement led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
He was the first person to be hanged for war crimes in Bangladesh, having been convicted by the country's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) set up in 2010 to investigate atrocities perpetrated during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
Four other Islamist leaders are on death row for their part in the conflict, in which three million people died and at least 200,000 women were raped.
Critics of the tribunal say it has been used as a political tool by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is locked in a long and poisonous feud with BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia, as a way of weakening the opposition as January 5 elections approach.
Jamaat's acting leader Moqbul Ahmed said in a statement on the party's website that people would revenge Mollah's "killing" by deepening the role of Islam in Bangladesh. He called for a general strike on Sunday.
MANY BANGLADESHIS SUPPORT EXECUTION
Many Bangladeshis support the ICT, believing that those convicted of war crimes should be punished, underlining how events of 42 years ago still resonate in a society uncertain over what role Islam should play.
Human rights groups have accused the ICT of denying Mollah a fair trial and the right to appeal.
"The execution of ... Mollah should never have happened," said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International's Bangladesh researcher. "The country is on a razor's edge... with pre-election tensions running high and almost non-stop street protests."
Mollah's case has deepened the rift between Hasina and Khaleda, whose enmity has overshadowed Bangladesh politics for more than 20 years.
Khaleda is demanding that Hasina step down and make way for a caretaker government before the vote, as has happened during previous elections in Bangladesh, but Hasina has so far refused.
Khaleda's BNP has staged a series of blockades that are crippling the Bangladesh economy, which relies heavily on a $22 billion garment industry supplying some of the biggest retailers in the West and employing four million people, mostly women.
Moving garments by truck from Dhaka to Chittagong has become increasingly dangerous and expensive, and exports have slumped by as much as 40 percent for some companies.
Western brands had already begun to review their operations in Bangladesh after a building housing factories collapsed in April, killing more than 1,130 people.
Nearly 200 people have died in various protests this year, involving political activists, blockades and garment workers angry over low pay and poor conditions.
(Additional reporting and writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)