Asia Sentinel, Jan 16 2009
Written by Nava Thakuria
Friday, 15 January 2010
Justice delayed may be justice denied – but for 35 years?
The first few weeks of the year may finally witness the execution, 35
years after the fact, of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the
founder of the People's Republic of Bangladesh who led the 1971
Bangladesh war for independence from Pakistan. The marathon time lapse
between the arrests of the killers, disgruntled Bangladesh Army
officers, and their execution is inextricably intertwined with the ups
and downs of Bangladeshi politics.
The countdown to the
execution began with the signing of the death warrants on Jan. 3. The
warrants have been served on five of the killers in Dhaka Central Jail,
where they have been imprisoned. Six more who have been charged with
the assassination are still on the run. Under Bangladesh law, if the
convicts fail to get pardoned from the president, they are to be
executed 21 to 28 days after the issuance of the warrants. A pardon is
hardly likely, since the president is Sheik Hasina Wajid, Mujibur's
daughter and one of only two of his family who weren't killed by the
plotters in the events of August of 1975.
Soon after the gory
incident, the Mujib-led Awami League government, which Sheikh Hasina
has headed since her father's death, was turned out of power and
Khondker Mushtaque Ahmed took over as president. Khondker promulgated
an indemnity ordinance on September 26, 1975 with the aim of stopping
the trial. The next 10 years after the killings witnessed snail-like
Subsequent regimes led by Ziaur Rahman, Hussain
Muhammad Ershad – a former army chief of staff -- and Begum Khaleda
Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in an abortive
military coup in 1981, showed no interest in reopening the case.
Instead, many of the accused army officers were rewarded with
diplomatic assignments outside the country.
The Awami League, now
led by Sheikh Hasina, returned to power in Dhaka in June of 1996 and
immediately scrapped the indemnity ordinance, clearing the way to bring
the killers to justice. The first report on the murders was finally
lodged at the Dhanmondi Police Station on October 2, 1996 and the
Criminal Investigation Department promptly started an investigation.
the CID submitted its charge sheet against 20 accused in January 1997,
the trial got underway three months later. It was interrupted by the
return to power of Khaleda Zia, now the leader of the rival Bangladesh
Nationalist Party and Hasina's implacable adversary. She remained in
power from 1999 through 2006. A military coup delayed the trial again
in 2006 , after which a caretaker government ruled the nation until
general elections in 2008 that were won by the Awami League and which
returned Sheikh Hasina to power.
The five former officers
awaiting the gallows are Muhiuddin Ahmed, Syed Faruque Rahman, Sultan
Shahriar Rashid Khan, Bazlul Huda, who was repatriated from Thailand
and AKM Mohiuddin, who had been living in the United States. Others who
are hiding in different countries, rumored to be Libya, Belgium,
Pakistan, India, Hong Kong and Canada, include Khandaker Abdur Rashid,
Shariful Haque Dalim, AM Rashed Chowdhury, Abdul Mazed, Risaldar
Mosleuddin Khan, and Noor Chowdhury, who is awaiting deportation in
Canada. One of the murderers, Abdul Aziz Pasha, took political asylum
in Zimbabwe and died there in 2001. The Bangladesh government has
launched a diplomatic campaign to bring the fugitives back to the
country. Interpol also issued a red alert to nab them as early as
The final verdict of Supreme Court on the case, as
expected, received overwhelming responses from various political
parties, civil society groups, the media and common citizens, with
people in general demanding an early execution. There are few calls for
clemency, partly because of the savagery of the original crime. The
pro-Pakistani army officers invaded Mujib's private residence at
Dhanmondi in Dhaka, killing his wife, Fazilatunessa, Mujib, sons Sheikh
Kamal, Sheikh Jamal and Sheikh Russell, his daughters-in-law, one of
whom was pregnant, and his brother Sheikh Naser. The President's
military secretary Colonel Jamil, detective officer Nurul Islam Khan
and Sepoy Shamsu also lost their lives in the during the pre-dawn
operation. Only Hasina and her sister, Sheikh Rehana, escaped because
they were out of the country.
The Bangladesh Supreme Court Bar
Association termed the verdict an epoch-making development in history
to establish the rule of law and urged the publication of a white paper
on those who were beneficiaries of the killings.
there are voices against the verdict, though very timid, who argue that
the murders constituted a coup instead of a crime. A pro-Pakistani
political analyst based in Dhaka, who wanted anonymity, asserted that
the army officers sought to rescue the nation "from the shackles of an
one-party autocratic regime." Speaking to Asia Sentinel from Dhaka, the
analyst also pointed out, "Even when high officials from the defense,
police and some political activists publicly admitted their involvement
in the issue, they are being ignored today by the law enforcing
agencies. After all, they (the killers) did not try to take over the
country after the incidence."
Farhad Mazhar, a senior Bangladeshi
rights activist, while responding to Asia Sentinel's e-mail query,
commented, "There are both political and criminal aspects of the
events. In the post-75 politics of Bangladesh, the criminal act of
killing Sheikh Mujubur Rahman prevailed because of the changed
political scenario of Bangladesh. The accused accepted the trial under
the existing laws of the country and defended their act as political.
The existing constitution and laws will have to take their course and
the killers of Sheikh Mujib cannot go unpunished.
that case, major debates are about the judicial process. Is it
transparent? Is it fair? To what extent it is politically motivated and
imbued with vindictive intentions? These are the questions raised in
Bengali local media as well as by human rights activists. The issue of
capital punishment is obviously a major concern not only in Bangladesh
but also globally."
The Dhaka based activist also added,
"Politically speaking the killing of Mujib was not the killing of the
'Father of the Nation' or 'Bangabandhu' as conventional wisdom goes.
People are divided on this issue. The Awami League and the Bangladesh
Nationalist Party of course have their own partisan views. The fact is
however, Mujib's was a dictatorial regime. He by force was introducing
a system called Bakshal, (martial law). He brutally killed Siraj
Sikder, the leader of the Sarbohara Party and thousands of left-leaning
youths and represent a dark phase in Bangladesh's history as a ruler.
His regime was condemned as a 'fascist regime' by the left movements as
well. He was killed as the leader of Bakshal, a dictator, who was
making it difficult to remove him by any democratic political movement."
after the verdict, Amnesty International appealed to Dhaka 'not to
execute the condemned convicts. The UK-based human rights watchdog said
in statement, "The killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family
members were grave human rights abuses, and those who committed them
should be brought to justice.
"However, bringing people to justice must not itself violate the human rights of the accused."
to Asia Sentinel from London, a senior official of Amnesty
International argued the organization (AI) "opposes the death penalty
in all cases regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics
of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner'.
death penalty, he added, "violates the right to life as proclaimed in
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is ultimate cruel,
inhuman and degrading punishment." Amnesty International has called
upon the Bangladesh President, Zilur Rahman, and PM Sheikh Hasina) "to
use its constitutional power with an aim to stop the execution of the
convicted army officials."
That seems highly unlikely.