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, Zilur Rahman, is understandably sympathetic to the prime minister,Sheik Hasina Wajed, 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 progress.
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.
After 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 possible.
The final Supreme Court verdict, 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 have been 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.
Nonetheless, 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, 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, (the killers) did not try to take over the country after the incidence."
Farhad Mazhar, a senior Bangladeshi rights activist, 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 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.
"However, in 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."
Immediately 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."
Speaking to Asia Sentinel from London, a senior official of Amnesty International that Amnesty International "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'.
The 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's government "to use its constitutional power with an aim to stop the execution of the convicted army officials."
That seems highly unlikely.