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Two death sentences in absentia for war crimes in Bangladesh

DHAKA (Reuters) - A Bangladesh war crimes court convicted and sentenced to death in absentia on Sunday two men accused of committing atrocities during the country's war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Britain-based Muslim leader Chowdhury Mueen Uddin and Ashrafuzzaman Khan, a U.S. citizen, were found guilty of the torture and murder of 18 intellectuals during the war, lawyers and tribunal officials said.

They said the 18 included nine Dhaka University teachers, six journalists and three doctors. Both men were 65 years old.

"Justice will be denied if they are not given death sentences for their heinous crimes," judge Obaidul Hassan told the crowded tribunal.

Bangladesh has been hit in recent months by a wave of violent protests over war crimes convictions, presenting the government with a security and credibility challenge ahead of polls early next year.

The tribunal has brought down eight convictions so far, with six defendants sentenced to death.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up the tribunal in 2010 to investigate abuses during the conflict, during which India helped Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, break away from Pakistan. It delivered its first verdict in January.

The prime minister's opponents say she is using the tribunal against the two biggest opposition parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Bloodletting erupted across the country since the tribunal's first verdict. More than 100 people have been killed in the clashes this year, most of them were Islamist party activists and members of the security forces.

So far, six former and current Jamaat leaders and two BNP leaders have been convicted.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group has said the tribunal's procedures fall short of international standards.

Veterans of the war were among hundreds of people outside the court who cheered the verdict.

"We know where they are living. We must do our best to bring them back and execute them," state prosecutor Tureen Afroz told reporters.

Bangladesh became part of Pakistan at the end of British rule in 1947 but it broke away from Pakistan in 1971. Some factions in Bangladesh, including the Jamaat, opposed the break with Pakistan, but the party denies accusations that its leaders committed murder, rape and torture.

About three million people were killed during the nine-month war, according to official figures, and thousands of women were raped.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Ron Popeski)