By Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh will hang an Islamist opposition leader within hours, his chief jailer said on Tuesday, heightening the risk of violent protests less than a month before elections are due.
Mainuddin Khandaker, head of Dhaka Central Jail, said Abdul Quader Mollah, who was found guilty in February of war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, would be hanged there.
Junior Home Affairs Minister Shamsul Haque Tuku told reporters the execution would take place at one minute past midnight (1.01 p.m. EST) on Wednesday. Mollah's family members visited him on Tuesday evening.
Political violence is common in the impoverished nation of 160 million people. When the Supreme Court sentenced Mollah to death in September, his Islamist supporters clashed with police.
Mollah is assistant secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, which is barred from contesting elections, but which plays a key role in the opposition movement alongside the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia is at loggerheads with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over the January 5 election. Their personal enmity has dominated politics in Bangladesh for more than 20 years and threatens to destabilise the country.
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 Mollah's imminent execution appears to dash hopes earlier in the day that the two sides might be edging towards a compromise.
Hasina's critics have accused her of using a special court set up to investigate war crimes from 1971 as a weapon against Jamaat-e-Islami, charges the government denies.
Human rights groups say the International Crimes Tribunal procedures fall short of international standards.
Bangladesh has been racked by violent protests sparked by the tribunal's rulings, disagreement 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 such as Wal-Mart, JC Penney and H&M, came under scrutiny when a building housing factories collapsed in April, killing more than 1,130 people.
(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul; writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Alistair Lyon)