CHITTAGONG/DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladesh police on Saturday opened fire at Islamists protesting the conviction for war crimes of one of their leaders, killing three people outside the port city of Chittagong. The deaths brought the total number killed since a war crimes tribunal delivered its first verdict on January 21 to at least 56, according to police figures. The number includes 40 who have died in the last three days, since Jamaat-e-Islami party vice president Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced to death, police said. Sayedee was found guilty on Thursday of murder, religious persecution and rape during the 1971 independence war, triggering violent clashes between rampaging Jamaat supporters and police across the country. The 73-year-old firebrand preacher was the third person to be convicted by the war crimes tribunal, whose verdicts have been met by outrage from Islamists. The Islamists say the process is more about settling scores than delivering justice. The latest violence came a day after the United States called for calm in the impoverished South Asian nation. “While engaging in a peaceful protest is a fundamental democratic right, we believe violence is never the answer,” U.S. State Department deputy acting spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters in Washington. But he stressed the United States believes “it is important to bring justice to those who have committed war crimes and atrocities” while ensuring that the trials be “free, fair, transparent.” In the new clashes, police said they fired live rounds after hundreds of student activists of Jamaat barricaded a key highway and attacked officers with stones and sticks as they tried to clear the road. “We were forced to open fire. Three people were killed in the clashes,” senior Chittagong police official Rabiul Islam told AFP, adding 10 people, including policemen, were wounded.
Bangladesh police arrested five students of an elite private university on Saturday on charges of murdering an anti-Islamist blogger whose death triggered nationwide turmoil. The students allegedly confessed to hacking to death Ahmed Rajib Haider, 35, on February 15 after he helped organise protests against leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami party on trial for war crimes, police said. Haider’s body was found with hatchet wounds to the head in what police said was an apparent attempt to behead him. Haider’s brother, who asked not to be named, told AFP his sibling — better known by his online identity Thaba Baba — had been “threatened frequently” by Islamists angry at his role in the protests and his writings against the religion.