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May 3, 8:15 AM EDT

Bangladesh war crimes court sentences 4 to death

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Bangladesh war crimes court sentences 4 to death

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NEW DELHI (AP) -- A special war crimes court in Bangladesh sentenced four men to death Tuesday for killing, torture, arson and looting during the nation's independence war against Pakistan in 1971.

The ruling is likely to aggravate the divide between moderates and extremists in the Sunni-majority nation, which is grappling with a wave of deadly assaults targeting atheist writers, religious minorities and political activists.

The court, accused by rights groups of holding flawed proceedings, said the four were involved in the deaths of nine people. Only one suspect, Shamsuddin Ahmed, was in court for the verdict. Authorities are still hunting for the other three: Gazi Abdul Mannan, Hafiz Uddin, and Shamsuddin Ahmed's brother, Nasiruddin.

The three-judge tribunal also sentenced a fifth man, Azharul Islam, to life in prison on two murder charges.

Past convictions have led Islamist groups to call for public strikes and protests against what they say is a witch hunt by the secular government to lock away political leaders seeking a return to Islamic rule.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said the war crimes trials, carried out by special tribunals established in 2010, represent a long-overdue effort to obtain justice more than four decades after Bangladesh split from Pakistan. Dozens of people have been convicted so far, including at least 29 who were sentenced to death. Most were leaders of the opposition party Jamaat-e-Islami.

Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed 3 million people and raped more than 200,000 women during the nine-month war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Previously it was the eastern wing of Pakistan.

Rights groups as well as Pakistani and U.S. officials have criticized the tribunal proceedings as flawed and possibly politically motivated, while warning that they could lead to a backlash from the government's political opponents.

Meanwhile, the country has been struggling with a wave of brutal attacks on political moderates and religious minorities. Most of the deadly hacking attacks have been claimed by Islamist groups believed to be affiliated with either the Islamic State group or al-Qaida in the Sub-Continent, though the Bangladeshi government denies those groups have any presence in the country. Instead, it accuses the political opposition of supporting such attacks to stir chaos in the country.

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