DHAKA (Reuters) - A Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal is due to pronounce judgment on a top Islamist politician on Thursday, raising fears a guilty verdict could ignite a fresh round of clashes between members of his party and security forces.
Bangladesh, reeling from a factory collapse that killed more than 700 people two weeks ago, is navigating one of its most turbulent periods since independence as a series of political conflicts converge ahead of elections due early next year.
Protests over the war crimes trials are one of the main challenges facing the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who opened an inquiry into abuses committed during a 1971 war for independence from Pakistan in 2010.
The tribunals have angered Islamists who say they are a politically-motivated attempt to persecute the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamist party in Bangladesh and a key part of an opposition coalition.
Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947. The independence war claimed about 3 million lives. Thousands of women were raped.
Some factions in Bangladesh opposed the break with Pakistan, including Jamaat. Its leaders have denied involvement in abuses.
On Thursday, judges are due to hand down a verdict in the trial of Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, a leader of Jamaat who is accused of involvement in the murder and torture of several civilians.
Syed Haider Ali, the lead government prosecutor, said he expected the court would sentence Kamaruzzaman to death.
"On the basis of our arguments we are hopeful of getting the highest punishment," Ali told reporters.
Kamaruzzaman was arrested in a separate criminal case in July, 2010, and was charged with war crimes the following month. He has pleaded not guilty through his lawyers.
Dozens of people have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters opposed to the tribunal since the first guilty verdict was delivered in January. Kamaruzzaman's judgment will be the fourth since the trials began.
The tribunal has been criticized by rights groups for failing to adhere to international standards. Human Rights Watch said lawyers, witnesses and investigators reported they had been threatened.
In a separate challenge to Hasina's government, tens of thousands of members of the hardline Islamist Hefajat-e-Islam movement massed in the capital Dhaka this week to demand the imposition of a new blasphemy law.
At least 20 people were killed in some of the worst violence seen in the city in decades when police used water cannons to disperse the gathering.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the main opposition party, has also turned up the heat on Hasina's secular Awami League government by calling a series of strikes to demand she resign.
Bangladesh has been rocked by protests and counter-protests linked to the tribunal since January, when it handed down its first sentence by condemning an expelled Jamaat member to death. In the second case, a Jamaat leader was given life in jail.
About 60 people have been killed in protests since the tribunal's third conviction in March, when another member of Jamaat, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, 73, was sentenced to death for abuses including murder and rape during the war.
Jamaat and the BNP both accuse the prime minister of using the tribunal to persecute them. The government denies that and says justice must be served.