DHAKA  - Bangladesh’s highest court held a hearing Wednesday to decide the fate of an Islamist leader sentenced to death for war crimes, after he was given a dramatic last-minute reprieve from execution.

A judge stayed the hanging of Jamaat-e-Islami party leader Abdul Quader Molla on Tuesday night, just 90 minutes before his scheduled execution overnight at a jail in the capital Dhaka.

He would have been the first person put to death for massacres committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 war following a series of verdicts by a special war crimes court that have sparked deadly protests.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday heard an appeal on whether Molla could seek a review of the death sentence, with his lawyers arguing that he had “a constitutional right” to do so.

However Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told the court there was “no scope for a review in war crimes cases”.

After more than two hours of legal argument, Chief Justice Muzammel Hossain adjourned the hearing until Thursday.

In a night of high drama, the government announced late Tuesday that Molla, described as the “Butcher of Mirpur” during the 1971 war, would be executed at one minute past midnight. Molla’s family was called to a jail in Old Dhaka where they found him to be calm and telling relatives one last time that he was being put to death because of his “involvement in the Islamic movement”. Thousands of secular protesters had gathered outside the gates of the jail to support his execution, while thousands of others massed at Shahbagh square in the capital in anticipation of the hanging of one of the country’s most notorious figures.

There was widespread anger as news spread that Molla had won a last-ditch reprieve.

“It is a conspiracy,” said Imran H Sarkar, who heads a bloggers’ forum behind the protests. “We won’t leave Shahbagh until he is executed.”

The planned hanging also triggered immediate protests by the Islamists in the unrest-plagued country, which is experiencing its worst political violence.

Police said a protester was shot dead after Jamaat supporters hurled petrol bombs at officers in the southern town of Feni. A woman and her daughter were burnt to death after protesters torched their van outside the capital.

Some 226 people have now been killed in battles between opposition protesters, police and government supporters since January this year.

Protesters also set fire to a village home of S.K. Sinha, who was on the panel of top judges which sentenced Molla to death on September 17, local police chief Nihar Ranjan told AFP.

Deputy law minister Quamrul Islam had earlier announced the execution, adding all legal processes had been exhausted and there was no obstacle to the execution of Jamaat’s chief strategist.

New York-based Human Rights Watch and two UN Special Rapporteurs have warned that by executing Molla without the death sentence being reviewed, the country could be breaking international law.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeking an eleventh-hour stay of execution, saying the trial did not meet stringent international standards for imposition of the death penalty.

“What logic do they have to stop the execution?” blogger Islam told AFP when asked about the criticism from rights experts.

“Did they stop the execution of Saddam Hussein?” he said, referring to the former Iraqi dictator who was hanged in December 2006.

Molla was convicted of rape, murder and mass murder, including the killing of more than 350 unarmed Bengali civilians.

Three other Jamaat leaders have also been sentenced to death for atrocities during the war.

Bangladesh regularly carries out the death sentence by hanging. But Molla’s death would be the most high-profile execution since January 2010, when five ex-army officers were put to death over the assassination of the nation’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father.