DHAKA - A Bangladeshi Islamist leader lost his final appeal on Monday against a death sentence for overseeing a massacre during the 1971 independence war, sparking protests by his supporters that left one dead.

Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, the third most senior figure in the Jamaat-e-Islami party, could now be hanged within days or even hours for the slaughter at the so-called “Village of Widows”.

His lawyer Shishir Manir said authorities have asked Kamaruzzaman’s family to meet him at Dhaka’s main jail later Monday “on an emergency basis”.

“It seems the authorities are making preparations to execute him,” Manir told AFP.

In the southern coastal town of Noakhali, police opened fire on around a dozen Jamaat supporters after they took to the streets to protest at the court’s decision.

“We fired in self-defence after they hurled rocks at us,” local police chief Anwar Hossain told AFP, stating that the protester was killed during the live firing and another was injured. Supreme Court Chief Justice S.K. Sinha ruled that a review petition filed by Kamaruzzaman’s lawyers had been dismissed and a death sentence passed in 2013 should stand. The 62-year-old’s only chance of avoiding the gallows will be if he is granted clemency by President Abdul Hamid. But analysts say the prospect of clemency is remote because the ruling effectively confirms allegations that he was one of the chief organisers of a pro-Pakistan militia which killed thousands of people.

Law Minister Anisul Huq told reporters that Kamaruzzaman “will be executed as soon as possible” if he refuses to seek Presidential clemency. Kamaruzzaman would be only the second Islamist so far to be hanged for war crimes, even though several are under sentence of death.

Another Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Molla, was executed in December 2013, just hours after his review petition was rejected by the Supreme Court.

A controversial domestic war crimes tribunal convicted Kamaruzzaman in May 2013 on charges of torture, abduction and mass killings in his role as a leader of the al-Badr militia during the war.

The conflict led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh from what was the then East Pakistan. Prosecutors said Kamaruzzaman presided over the massacre of at least 120 unarmed farmers who were lined up and gunned down in the remote northern village of Sohagpur. Three women who lost their husbands testified against him in one of the most emotive of all the war crimes trials.

 Testimony challenged

Kamaruzzaman’s lawyers had tried to convince the Supreme Court there were “serious discrepancies” in the witness testimonies. Jamaat, the country’s largest Islamist party, is an ally of the main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose leader Khaleda Zia is trying to topple Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s secular government. Jamaat’s members have been accused of being behind a number of deadly firebomb attacks since the start of the year, including on buses.

The party branded Monday’s ruling a “government conspiracy to murder” its leader and called a nationwide strike on Tuesday and Wednesday in protest.

Jamaat and the BNP have previously charged that the war crimes trials are mainly aimed at silencing Hasina’s opponents rather than delivering justice.

Hasina’s government says the trials — which lack any international oversight — are needed to heal the wounds of the conflict.

- ‘Show him no mercy’ -

Widows and relatives of the Sohagpur victims welcomed the verdict, alongwith secular activists.

“Our only demand is that he is executed in the quickest possible time. There should be no mercy for him,” said Muhammad Jalal Uddin, a Sohagpur farmer who lost seven members of his extended family in the killing.

“I’ve spoken to the widows. Thirty-two of them are still alive. They are very happy hearing the news of the verdict,” said Jalal Uddin, who leads a charity supporting the widows.

Bangladesh suffered its deadliest chapter of political violence in 2013 after the war crimes court handed down a series of death sentences on Jamaat leaders for their role in the 1971 conflict.