DHAKA - Bangladesh’s main Islamist party was on Thursday barred from contesting next year’s elections when judges declared its charter breached the secular constitution, sparking sporadic violence in the volatile nation.

Amid tight security outside the court in central Dhaka, a panel of judges ruled in favour of a long-running petition which argued that Jamaat-e-Islami should never have been allowed to register as a political party. “It (Jamaat’s registration) is hereby declared illegal,” said Moazzem Hossain, the senior judge hearing the case, reading out the brief verdict.

Secular protesters gathered outside the court flashed V-for-victory signs in celebration. The election commission said the ruling meant Jamaat could not stand in a general election scheduled for January.

Jamaat’s lawyers immediately appealed the verdict, as party activists took to the streets of Dhaka and some dozen towns and cities elsewhere in the country, blocking roads and attacking vehicles, police said.

Senior police officer Syed Abu Sayem told AFP the ruling triggered violence just outside the northern city of Bogra as scores of Jamaat supporters burnt a bus and damaged several cars.

A lawyer for the election commission, which oversees preparations for next year’s polls, said the ruling meant Jamaat could not field candidates.

“As a party, Jamaat’s registration with the election commission is declared illegal, with the consequence that they cannot contest the election as a political party,” Shahdeen Malik told AFP.

“The party can still carry on with other political activities. If it amends its charter, to bring it in conformity with the constitution and reapplies for registration, it can be re-registered,” Malik added.

Police and members of the elite Rapid Action Battalion were deployed outside the court, ahead of the verdict, amid fears the ruling could trigger fresh protests by Jamaat supporters in a country already reeling from violence over war crimes verdicts passed on Jamaat’s top leadership.

Religious as well as several secular organisations filed public interest litigation in January 2009 seeking to scrap Jamaat’s registration just days after a secular government took power.

The petitioners argued that Jamaat’s charter violates the country’s secular constitution as it calls for the rule of Allah and discriminates against minorities and women.

Defence lawyer Tajul Islam said Jamaat lodged an appeal, and was seeking a suspension of Thursday’s judgement pending a hearing in the Supreme Court.

Senior Jamaat official Abdullah Taher said the party was shocked by the decision. He said the court had bowed to pressure from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s secular government.

“We are stunned. The ruling reflects the will of the government,” Taher told AFP.

“The ruling will further destabilise the country,” he said, accusing the government of persecuting the party ahead of the elections. More than 100 people have been killed in political violence since a tribunal hearing allegations of war crimes dating back to the 1971 civil war began handing down sentences at the start of the year, including against senior Jamaat figures.

Five of Jamaat’s top leaders have been convicted including three who got death sentences. Several other party leaders are still on trial for charges including mass murder, rape and religious persecution during the war. Although the exact number of people killed in recent months is in dispute, Human Rights Watch said in a report Thursday that at least 150 people have died in clashes with security forces. Jamaat says the war crimes trials are a sham aimed at eliminating the party, which is a key opposition force.

Secular protesters have long demanded that Jamaat be banned for its role in the 1971 war of independence, during which it opposed Bangladesh’s breakaway from Pakistan. About 90 percent of Bangladesh’s 153 million strong population are Muslim and the constitution was changed in 1988 making Islam the nation’s state religion.

But the original constitution, drafted by the main secular party after independence, bars the use of religion in politics.

Although Jamaat has rarely won more than five percent of votes at election time since the 1970s, it has been a member of a number of coalition governments.

It was last part of a government in 2006 but has been in the political wilderness since its then-coalition ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was beaten by Hasina’s Awami League in elections two years later.