By Anis Ahmed and Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in cities across Bangladesh for a third day on Thursday to demand the execution of an Islamist leader sentenced to life in prison for war crimes committed during the 1971 independence conflict.
The sentencing of Abdul Quader Mollah by a war crimes tribunal on Tuesday for charges including murder, rape and torture was the second verdict in trials that have reopened the wounds of Bangladesh's struggle to break away from Pakistan.
Most Bangladeshis had expected a death sentence to be handed to Mollah, 64, assistant secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami - the country's biggest Islamist party.
Public outrage was fuelled by bloggers and activists using Facebook and other social media websites who called for mass protests.
Protest leaders have called for activists around the country to converge on Dhaka on Friday for a mass rally.
Demonstrations were held for the third day running on Thursday in more than a dozen cities, including the capital Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Rangpur and Khulna.
Thousands of people poured on to Dhaka's Shahbag Avenue, vowing to continue their protest until authorities agreed to their demand to execute Mollah. Police blocked nearby streets and diverted traffic.
"We won't go home until we are satisfied," said student Shams Islam as the crowd sang patriotic songs, beat drums and burned effigies of the Islamist leader.
"We are not only pushing for justice, but also reminding our political leaders that the nation can unite and stand together for a genuine cause," said another activist, Abdul Latif.
"Shahbag has become a model for unity, especially for the young generation aspiring for a happy and prosperous Bangladesh," he said.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British rule in 1947 but broke away in 1971 after a war between Bangladeshi nationalists, who were backed by India, and Pakistani forces that cost 3 million lives.
NEW STRIKE CALL
Some factions in what was then East Pakistan opposed the break with Pakistan, and numerous abuses were committed during the nine-month war. Jamaat denies accusations that it opposed independence and helped the Pakistani army.
There is widespread support among Bangladeshis for calls for Mollah to be hanged, but in an indication of the rifts opened up by the court, shops and businesses in the capital and elsewhere were shut on Tuesday and Wednesday as Jamaat-e-Islami enforced a national strike against his conviction.
About 50 people were injured and about 100 arrested in clashes between Jamaat activists and police on Wednesday.
Jamaat on Thursday called for a day-long strike in Chittagong on Saturday in protest against police actions in the port city during the walkout on Tuesday, when the party says four of its supporters died.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, set up the war crimes tribunal in 2010 to investigate abuses during the 1971 war.
But critics say she is using it as a political weapon against the two biggest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami.
The court delivered its first judgment last month, sentencing a former Jamaat leader and popular Islamic preacher, Abul Kalam Azad, to death for murder, rape and other crimes.
Eight other senior Jamaat leaders are on trial, along with two men from the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Hasina's arch rival, Begum Khaleda Zia.
The ruling Awami party has rejected accusations that the tribunal is biased but it has been criticized by human rights groups for failing to adhere to standards of international law.
Hasina on Thursday urged Bangladeshis to remain vigilant against what she said were attempts by Jamaat to "stop the trial of war criminals and foil democracy".
(Additional reporting by Serajul Quadir; Editing by Pravin Char)