By Ruma Paul
DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh's Supreme Court has adjourned until Thursday a hearing to decide if an Islamist opposition leader can appeal against his death penalty, in a case that has heightened political tension less than a month before elections are due.
Abdul Quader Mollah, found guilty of war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, was due to be hanged at Dhaka Central Jail just after midnight on Wednesday, but his lawyers earned a last-minute reprieve.
Later in the morning, lawyers met at the Supreme Court's appeals division and will resume arguments on Thursday, a state prosecutor said. The stay of execution remains until the appeal against the death penalty is resolved, he added.
Mollah is 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 is one of five Islamist leaders condemned to death by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), set up in 2010 to investigate atrocities perpetrated during the 1971 conflict, in which three million people died.
Critics of the ICT 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.
But many Bangladeshis support the court, believing that those convicted of war crimes should be punished, underlining how the events of 42 years ago still resonate in an impoverished nation of 160 million deeply divided over the role for Islam.
In sporadic violence late on Tuesday, when Mollah's fate was still uncertain, at least three people were killed, including a mother and her 7-year-old daughter who were burned to death when pro-Jamaat activists torched their truck north of Dhaka.
In the capital, hundreds of people angrily chanted for Mollah's execution to be carried out.
The drama around Mollah's fate has worsened 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.
United Nations official Oscar Fernandez-Taranco has been in Bangladesh for the last five days seeking a breakthrough, and said late on Tuesday he saw tentative signs of progress.
BNP supporters have staged a series of blockades of roads, railways and waterways in the last month, threatening to cripple the economy, which relies heavily on garment exports.
(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)