By Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh's war crimes tribunal sentenced a popular Islamic televangelist to death on Monday, the first verdict by the controversial body set up to probe abuses during the country's bloody struggle for independence.
Abul Kalam Azad, a former member of Bangladesh's biggest Islamist party, was found guilty of torture, rape and genocide during the war for independence from Pakistan in 1971. Police believe he fled to Pakistan last April and he was tried in absentia.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the tribunal in 2010 to probe abuses during the conflict that claimed about 3 million lives and during which thousands of women were raped. Another 11 people are awaiting trial.
The tribunal has been criticised by rights groups for failing to adhere to standards of international law, while opposition parties say it is politically biased.
"The ICT (International Crimes Tribunal) in its verdict ordered for death penalty," said Shahidur Rahman, a lawyer for the prosecution in a trial that drew a huge crowd outside the court in Dhaka amid tight security.
Critics say the tribunal is being used by the prime minister as an instrument against her opponents in the country's two biggest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-e-Islami. Begum Khaleda Zia, Hasina's arch rival, has called the tribunal a "farce".
Human Rights Watch has said the law under which the accused were being tried fell short of international standards of due process. It cited defence lawyers, witnesses and investigators as saying they had been threatened during the trial.
Hasina's party has denied allegations of bias.
Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, won independence with India's help in December 1971 following a nine-month war against Pakistan.
Azad, a former member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, was accused of collaborating with Pakistani forces in the murder of Hindus, a minority in the majority-Muslim state. In one case, he was accused of killing at least 12 Hindus while shooting indiscriminately along with Pakistani soldiers.
"The verdict is given and I am very happy. The Bangladesh for which we fought, there were people who were against our liberation ... they were collaborators, they must be punished," said Aftab Ali who fought in the independence war.
A former chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the country's top Islamist leader are also on trial on charges of helping the Pakistani army during the war.
The party has denied charges that it collaborated with the Pakistani army and has accused Hasina's government of concocting war crimes charges to try to undermine it.
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Jeremy Laurence)