Dhaka: Bangladesh Supreme Court today commuted the death sentence of Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a key 1971 war criminal and fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami leader, saying he would now have to serve in prison "until his death".

"He shall serve in prison for the rest of his natural life," Chief Justice M Muzammel Hossain pronounced in a crowded courtroom in a surprise ruling. A five-member bench of the apex court, headed by Hossain, pronounced the verdict by "majority view" but did not elaborate how many of the judges gave different opinions over the sentence of Sayedee, who was handed down death penalty by International Crimes Tribunal in February last year.

The Tribunal's ruling triggered the deadliest political violence in the country's history. Sayedee is a stalwart of Jamaat, which was opposed to Bangladesh's 1971 independence siding with the then Pakistani junta, forming notorious militia groups like Al-Badr ad Al-Shams as auxiliary forces of the Pakistani troops.

The Tribunal earlier found Sayedee guilty of six major charges while the apex found valid three of those including killing, rapes and forceful conversion of a number of Hindus to Islam and relieved him of charges of mass killings.

In an instant reaction, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said the verdict of the Appellate Division of the Supreme
Court "saddened" him as he expected the ape court to uphold the tribunal judgment.

"My expectation was that his death penalty would be upheld, which has not been fulfilled...so I feel bad," he told reporters. He said that he now await the delivery of the full verdict for his detailed analysis.

Alam said the verdict unmasked Sayeedi's image as an ardent servant of Islam as allegations of forceful conversion
of several Hindus was proved against him. "Islam never allows forceful conversion to Islam which he
(Sayeedi) did it in 1971," he said.

A son of the Islamist leader also said he was deprived of justice as the apex court should have "acquitted my father and we would like to get it reviewed" but Alam said under the law there is no scope for such review for the cases of war crimes convicts.

Authorities earlier called out paramilitary troops to guard the capital and other major cities fearing outbreak of violence following the Supreme Court ruling.

Nearly 100 people, including policemen, were killed as Jamaat activists went on rampage in different parts of the
country when the Tribunal sentenced Sayedee to death last year.