DHAKA - Two top Bangladeshi opposition leaders will be hanged later Saturday night for their roles in the 1971 independence war after the country’s president rejected their last-ditch clemency pleas to avoid execution

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told AFP that President Abdul Hamid turned down the pleas just hours after the two leaders sought the pardon in a bid to escape the gallows. “The president has rejected their mercy petitions,” Khan said, adding the authorities would now prepare for the executions of the two leaders.

The minister did not give any timelines for the execution, but deputy police chief of Dhaka Sheikh Maruf Hasan said the two convicted leaders, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, would be hanged later Saturday night.

“The executions will take place today. That’s why we have stepped up security,” Hasan told reporters in front of the gate of Dhaka Central Jail where the scaffolds have been prepared to execute the two by hanging. Mujahid, 67, was sentenced to death for war crimes such as the killing of the country’s top intellectuals. He is the second most senior member of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

Chowdhury, 66, was convicted for atrocities such as genocide during the 1971 war when the then East Pakistan split from Islamabad. He is a six-times ex-lawmaker and a top aide to Khaleda Zia, leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In a sign that the two leaders were set to be hanged within hours, family members of Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury went to the prison to meet the two for the last time. “The prison authorities have called us to meet our father. Definitely, that’s the last meeting,” Ali Ahmad Mabrur, the youngest son of Mujahid, told AFP as hundreds of police could be seen surrounding the prison compound.

Hojatul Islam, a lawyer for Salahuddin Qauder Chowdhury, said the former leader’s family had also entered the jail to meet him. “This is the end,” he said. As part of a century-long tradition, Bangladeshi prison authorities call family members of death-row convicts to meet them one final time hours before their execution.

Earlier on Saturday, Justice Minister Anisul Huq said the two had sought clemency from the president after exhausting all legal appeals to avoid execution. Hamid has the power to pardon or commute the death sentence of any convict. Bangladesh’s Supreme Court on Wednesday dismissed their final appeals, upholding the leaders’ death sentences originally handed down by a controversial domestic war crimes tribunal in 2013.

Sons of the two convicts, however, questioned whether their fathers had in fact sought mercy, saying they don’t believe the government’s statements. The pair are among more than a dozen leaders of the opposition alliance convicted by a tribunal set up by the secular government in 2010. The convictions triggered the country’s deadliest violence since independence, with some 500 people killed, mainly in clashes between Jamaat-e-Islami activists and police.

There are fears the latest verdicts could spark fresh unrest in the Muslim-majority nation, which is reeling from a string of killings of secular bloggers as well as the murders of two foreigners in recent months. Jamaat called a nationwide strike on Thursday, declaring Mujahid’s original trial “farcical” and “aimed at eliminating” the party’s leadership.

International rights groups and legal experts have also criticised the trial, saying it fell short of international standards. On Friday New York-based Human Rights Watch asked Bangladesh to halt the “imminent executions” of Mujahid and Chowdhury, citing “serious fair trial concerns surrounding their convictions”.

"Unfair trials can't provide real justice, especially when the death penalty is imposed," he said in a statement, adding the sentences should be suspended immediately. Mujahid, secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, was found guilty of charges including torture and the murders of intellectuals and minority Hindus while he commanded Al Badr, an auxiliary force of the Pakistani army, during the war to break away from Pakistan.

Chowdhury, former legislator from ex-premier Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was convicted in 2013 on charges of genocide, religious persecution, abduction and torture during the war. The rulings mean the men, who say they are innocent, could be hanged at any time unless they seek mercy from the president. Two Jamaat leaders have been executed so far, one in December 2013 and another in April. They declined to seek clemency.

The condemned men's families repeated accusations by opposition parties that the trials are being used as a political tool by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who opened an inquiry in 2010 into abuses committed during the war.