The Original Sin
It has been more than a mere trial. On August 15, 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, along with 13 members of his family, was brutally murdered by a bunch of disgruntled, degenerate members of the Army. Obstacles were created to bar the trial of the killers, not only that, Zia, Ershad and Khaleda governments gave them protection and diplomatic jobs, creating a society where killers of innocent men, women and children can go scot-free. It has taken the nation 34 long years to bring Bangabandhu's 12 killers to book. Last week's Supreme Court verdict is a giant step towards establishment of a society based on democracy and the rule of law.
Barrister Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, one of the three survivors of the August mayhem, will never forget the dawn of August 15, 1975. Taposh, who was around four years old at that time, was sleeping in his room with his brother when he heard his father's footsteps in the stairs. Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, one of the organisers of the Liberation War was going downstairs to pick up "the day's newspaper or a book", Taposh could not quite recall. As he reached the landing space of the stairs, a bunch of killers led by Risaldar Moslehuddin got hold of him. Moni, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's nephew, was told to walk ahead. "You are under arrest," said the Risaldar.
"Meanwhile, my mother came down," says Taposh, "Before the killers fired at my father, in an attempt to save him, my mother came before the gun and both were shot." She was seven-months pregnant at the time of the killing.
Taposh and his elder brother were eyewitnesses to one of the grisliest and barbaric murders in human history. "After the massacre, Mrs Fatema Selim, one of our aunts, took us to a safe house, telling us that it was not safe to stay in that house any more," Taposh says.
He was completely devastated. "Even though I was a mere toddler at that time I knew what I had lost," Taposh says. He and his brother have been lucky because within a few hours after the murders, the killers came back looking for Moni's two sons that they had orphaned.
Taposh still bears the trauma of the loss. "I won't be able to tell you what I feel. Parents are a person's biggest assets. I miss them in every step of my life's successes and failures, achievements and defeats," he says. Taposh, who has recently survived an assassination attempt, says that he missed his father when he first became a barrister.
The first attack on the night of August 15 was launched on Abdur Rab Serniabat's house. In the 20-minute-long killing spree that ensued, the murderers killed Serniabat, his wife, daughters and three minor members of his family. Serniabat's son Abul Hasnat Abdullah, a survivor in the family who has luckily escaped on that frightful night, told a British journalist, “I later saw my wife, mother and 20-year-old sister badly wounded and bleeding." He says that his two young daughters, uninjured, were sobbing behind a sofa where they had hidden during the massacre. Lying dead on the floor were his 5-year-old son, two sisters aged 10 and 15 and his 11-year old brother, the family ayah (maid), a house-boy and his cousin Shahidul Islam Serniabat.
On the night of August 15, 1975, the killers divided themselves into several groups. The first one, led by Lt Col (then Major) SHBM Nur Chowdhury and Lt Colonel (then Major) Mohiuddin Ahmed, went to the historic house at Dhanmandi road no 32. The second group, assigned to kill Abdur Rab Serniabat and his family members, was led by Major Dalim, and Risaldar Moslehuddin Khan led the third group, which launched an attack on Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni's house.
Gen. Zia (extreme left), the then second in command of Bangladesh Army at Khondokar Moshtaque's oath-taking ceremony.
When the massacre was going on at Serniabat household, Bangabandhu got a call from the house. "Get the police control room," he told his personal assistant Muhitul Islam. When he could get neither the police station nor the Ganobhaban Exchange, Bangabandhu himself tried to make a call. A hail of bullets poured in and Mujib told Islam to duck under the table. A few minutes later Bangabandhu got up and went out to the veranda. Meanwhile, the butchers had already killed Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal. By that time Major Mohiuddin took Bangabandhu to the landing of the stairs. Nur appeared in the corner and said something to Mohiuddin, to which the latter moved to one side. "What do you want?" Bangabandhu asked. There was silence. Nur and Major Huda then simultaneously fired volleys of bullets from their Sten guns. Bangabandhu's whole body twisted back and slipped to the landing of the stairs. It was 5.40 in the morning. Mujib's death could not quench the blood-thirst of the murderers, Begum Fazilatunnesa Mujib, Bangabandhu's wife, embraced martyrdom within a few minutes. The killers then went into one room after the other and killed Bangabandhu's two daughters-in-law.
The killers looked for Sheikh Russell, Bangabandhu's 10-year-old son, and found him in a corner. "I want to go to my mother," Russell, merely a toddler, cried. "We are taking you to her," said one of the killers and took him to first floor. There were volleys of gunshots.
Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmed, who declared himself President on August 15 following Bangabandhu's brutal assassination, on 26th September promulgated an ordinance indemnifying the killers. The Ordinance was promulgated, as the Bangladesh Gazette dated that day says, “ to restrict the taking of any legal or other proceedings in respect of certain acts or things in connection with, or in preparation or execution of any plan for, or steps necessitating, the historical change and the Proclamation of Martial Law on the morning of 15th August, 1975.”
The murders have been brutal and barbaric as it is, but to indemnify the killers of pregnant women and children have been something unheard of. With the brutal and barbaric murders of August 15, Bangladesh, as a nation, plunged into an abyss of darkness. Within nine days of the mayhem, the then Army Chief Gen Shafiullah was sent into retirement and was replaced by his second-in-command Gen Ziaur Rahman. Since then, except for the four days of November 3-7, 1975, Zia was at the centre of power. There has been widespread allegation that Gen Zia gave the killers the go-ahead to assassinate Mujib and his family. Lt Col (dismissed) Farooq, in a confessional statement given to the trial court on December 19, 1996 said that Lt Col (retd) Sultan Shahrier Rashid Khan told him prior to the massacre that Zia would support them if Mujib was killed.
"There are multilateral dimensions to the conspiracy," says Syed Anwar Husain, professor of History at University of Dhaka. He says that there is evidence, however a little bit peripheral, to suggest Zia's involvement in the August massacre. "This evidence arises out of his perfunctory reaction upon being informed that Bangabandhu was killed. Zia replied, 'President is killed, so what? The Vice President is there. Uphold the constitution'."
These staccato sentences, Professor Anwar says, when analysed together, lead to disturbing conclusions. "Firstly," he says, "it appeared that he took this very barbaric and dastardly incident very lightly, meaning he had a foreknowledge of the happenings." He also says that Zia said the right thing by urging everyone to uphold the constitution under such abnormal circumstances. "Anybody in a responsible position could have said the same thing; but the core statement, which makes us suspicious is: 'So what?'"
In fact, it was Zia who incorporated the infamous Indemnity Ordinance into the constitution, constitutionally protecting the killers of innocent men, women and children. "Zia was at the forefront of all the beneficiaries of this tragic happening. He was the man who did everything to shield the killers from any legal process and he also managed to provide them with safe passages out of the country," Professor Anwar says.
In fact, Zia's assumption of power was coated with the blood of the martyrs of the August 15 mayhem. The killers have found a benevolent friend in Gen Ziaur Rahman-- he gave them diplomatic jobs, legal protection by incorporating the Indemnity Ordinance into the constitution at his own rubber-stamp, pet parliament.
Even though Bangabandhu's killers are about to walk the gallows in a month, Zia's involvement in the August carnage waits to be unearthed. The murders gave birth to a string of bloody coups and counter-coups. There was a government in Dhaka, but there had been alternative centres of powers at different times in the months of August, September, October and November, 1975.
The culture of coup, conspiracy and murder that was given birth to in 1975, continued. Zia himself survived several coup attempts, all of which he suppressed with an iron hand. During Zia's regime there had been several trials for launching coups, and interestingly in most of the cases those who were on the dock were army officers who fought during the Liberation War; but for the August 15 killers waited only government benefits. On May 30, 1981, Zia himself became a victim of coup; he was assassinated in Chittagong. And those who were put to trial before a martial law court were also freedom fighter officers of the Bangladesh Army. It seemed as though a conspiracy had been hatched to purge the army of Muktijoddha officers.
Bangabandhu's murder has destroyed all the major democratic institutions of the country. Judiciary, in the hands of different military dictators, was used to legitimise the latter's illegal hold on power. Elections became a joke, and one of the worst victims of the August 15 mayhem has been the Armed Forces of the country. For 15 long years the nation was rattled by a culture of killing and impunity that started through the massacres of August 15; and our Army was no exception. Militarisation of governance has done no country any good, and as a result of it both the Army and the country's wobbling democracy suffered.
In 1990, the Armed Forces took the courageous stance of refusing to obey the dictatorial regime of General HM Ershad. During the mass upsurge, at the fag end of Ershad's regime, the army high command refused to fire on the masses that took to the street to bring down Ershad's illegal rule. The mass movement paved the way to restoration of democracy, which we had lost on August 15, 1975 through the brutal murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Khaleda Zia, Ziaur Rahman's widow, who assumed power after democracy was restored in 1991, kept her late husband's policy regarding the killers unaltered. In the February 15, 1996 general elections, held when Khaleda was in office, Khandaker Abdur Rashid, one of the self-confessed killers of the Father of the Nation, was elected uncontested. And the subsequent governments that followed the carnage have all had their fair shares in abetting the killings. One of the basic tenants of democracy is the rule of law and as they did not hold trial of the killers of innocent, unarmed men, women and children, the basis on which Zia, Ershad and Khaleda regimes held power was immoral, if not illegal.
Khaleda Zia's sympathy for Mujib's killers can only be explained if clear evidence of Zia's hand in Mujib murder can be found. Not only did Khaleda follow her late husband's policy on the killers, during her second term in office the Mujib murder case was deliberately stalled through the creation of one government-made obstacle after the other. Zia helped the killers flee: Khaleda made their trial difficult.
The trial of the killers, done in a free and transparent manner, finally ended last week, 34 years after the murders. The Awami League government deserves kudos for not tampering with justice, keeping the judicial system free from undue influences. Last week's Supreme Court verdict that upheld the death penalty of Bangabandhu's 12 killers is immensely significant on several counts. It proves that no matter how long it is or how well protected the killers are, there is no law in the country that can save murderers of innocent men and women. To establish a society based on the basic tenants of the rule of law it is a must that killers are punished; and that is exactly what has happened through the Supreme Court verdict. During the era of military dictatorships, there are several instances where judges, at gunpoint, had to legitimise the despotic rules of different military dictators. This verdict has also absolved the highest court of the land of its previous sins.
Last week our Supreme Court has at last given us the opportunity of heaving a collective sigh of relief. The dark era of misrule, abuse of power and impunity that has prevailed over the years has come to an end. We demand a quick execution of the verdict, with which we also wish to move on as a nation towards the establishment of Golden Bengal that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had dreamt of but could not achieve. Our goal should now be to build a happy and prosperous nation. Establishment of a country based on rule of law, democratic values, and social and economic justice is perhaps the biggest tribute we can pay to our Father of the Nation.
A Hero's Death
This is the story of a hero who stood by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's side. In the early morning of August 15, when no one at the establishment was brave enough to come to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's rescue, Col Jamil Uddin Ahmed, the then director, Directorate of Forces Intelligence, embraced martyrdom at Sobhanbagh Mosque, becoming the lone army-men who rushed to save the Father of the Nation and his family members.
Julfikar Ali Manik
Afrozaa Jamil Konka, daughter of the valiant army officer Col Jamil, can still vividly recall the dawn of August 15, the day her father was killed by Bangabandhu's murderers. "We used to live in Ganobhaban at that time. In the early morning I woke up to whispers--my parents were talking to each other," Konka says. Her mother asked her father whether "he was really going".
Col Jamil, who was kept hostage in Pakistan during our glorious Liberation War, said to his wife, "Bangabandhu's life is at stake, I have to go." As the whispers got louder, Konka, who was then only 12-years-old, walked into the master bedroom where her parents were talking. "I saw my father get dressed in civil uniform; he quickly got down the stairs, and we followed him."
Col Jamil then asked the Presidential Guard Regiment (PGR) to march towards Bangabandhu's house. Little did Konka know what was going on: "I got to know later from my mother that at 4:45 in the morning Bangabandhu called our house up and asked for my father. My father only said, 'Yes sir, I am coming right away'." Bangabandhu told Jamil: "I am in danger. Who knows who have attacked me; Jamil, save me!"
Jamil did not waste a second; called the Chief of Army Staff (CAS) Gen Shafiullah and other important organisations such as now-defunct Rakhkhi Bahini. "My father told Gen Shafiullah, 'I am going to house no 32, you send in force'."
Col Jamil Uddin Ahmed
Before he headed off to Bangabandhu's house, Jamil picked up his loaded revolver and tried to call Sheikh Mujib again, but the line was down.
"My father wanted to go with the convoy of the Presidential Guard Regiment, but there wasn't enough jeeps to take the troops. So, he told the troops to march ahead and rode a red Nissan Prince and went off towards Dhanmandi," Konka says.
Before he got into the car, Mrs Jamil asked him one last time, "Do you really have to go?" Col Jamil replied, "Are you crazy? Bangabandhu is in danger and I won't go!" He lit a cigarette, drank a glass of water and told his wife, "Take good care of my daughters."
Konka and her mother walked behind the car and stared till the car disappeared in the darkness of the night. "When we turned round, one of the guards at Ganobhaban gate told my mum, 'Madam, you let him go!'" The family never saw Col Jamil again.
When Jamil's car came near Sobhanbagh, he saw that the PGR convoy was not moving any further. He got down near the mosque and asked a soldier why the troops were not moving.
"A lot of trouble ahead, sir," replied the soldier, who was standing before a barricade, which included tanks.
But Col Jamil remained undeterred. He walked to the barricade and asked a Subeder-Major, who was manning the barricade, and said, "I am Col Jamil, obey my command, remove the barricade and let the PGR convoy move."
Sure that he had almost convinced the Subeder-Major, Col Jamil walked back to his car and told his driver Ainuddin to start driving.
"Sir, please don't go," Ainuddin replied.
"Get down, if you are scared, and let me drive," Jamil said.
By that time Major Bazlul Huda turned up from the dark and said, "Who is this?"
"This is Col Jamil," he said.
According to Col's Jamil's driver, Ainuddin, Huda wasted no time and told the Subeder-Major: "Shoot him!"
The Subeder refused to obey Huda's command, he said, "No sir, I can't'."
Huda then took up a gun and rained a barrage of bullets at the back of Col Jamil's car; Jamil said Laa ilaha illallah thrice and embraced a hero's death. Ainuddin ran for his life, leaving the imam of Sobhanbagh, the lone civilian witness, behind.
Ainuddin turned up at Jamil household at 11 in the morning. "He was crying. My mother asked him where he has left my father," Konka says.
Distraught, Ainuddin said, "I told sir many a time not to go there, but he did not listen to me." Ainuddin ran out of the house.
"We still did not know what happened to my father," Konka says. The Jamils at Ganobhaban knew that Bangabandhu was assassinated. "After seeing off my father, between 6.30-7 in the morning my mother turned the radio on and we heard that Bangabandhu was murdered and as far as I can recall Major Dalim announced it," she says.
From then onwards, Mrs Jamil called the Ganobhaban office several times and whoever answered it said, "Jamil bhai is around, don't worry."
About 2pm in the afternoon, a call came from the CAS Gen Shafiullah himself, whom Col Jamil asked at dawn to send troops to Bangabandhu's rescue. Mrs Jamil answered the phone and all Shafiullah could say was, "Bhabi, Jamil bhai (even though Jamil was a Colonel and Shafiullah was a Major General, Jamil was senior to Shafiullah ) …", Mrs Jamil fainted; the receiver fell from her hand. Jamil's three daughters still did not know what had happened to their father.
An army officer turned up a few moments later and told them that it was not safe for them to stay at Ganobhaban. They fled to Jamil's brother's house in an army jeep in the middle of the curfew. "We were in a state of denial, we could sense that my father was murdered, still we did not want to believe it," Konka says.
The confirmation of Jamil's death came from Brig Gen Khaled Mosharraf. A negotiation with the murderers to retrieve the dead body of slain Col Jamil started. The murderers talked to Brig Gen Mosharraf and agreed to hand us over his dead body on the ground that Col Jamil was an army-man. "My uncles went to road no 32 in Dhanmandi and received my father's dead body. It was brought back by my uncle's car, the whole time it was cordoned off by the killers," Konka says.
No one was allowed to see Jamil's face. Konka sneaked down to the street and saw his father's feet come out of the window. "All I could do was touch them," Konka says.
The body was taken to Khaled Mosharraf's house. As there was a curfew, we could not get the burial shroud. The final rites were done at Mosharraf's house; "There was this beautiful white bed sheet that my aunt had brought from the US. It was used as a burial shroud," Konka says.
Before the body was headed for the burial, the killers and their cohorts allowed Jamil's family members to see his dead body on one condition: No one was allowed to cry, no one would make a single sound. Surrounded by gun-totting killers, the family was allowed to see Jamil's body one last time. It was kept at Brig Gen Khaled Mosharraf's garage and when Col Jamil's eldest daughter broke into tears, the soldiers raised their guns and told her to get back into the house.
"My father's body was still bleeding," Konka says. The coffin was wet with the blood of the hero. Col Jamil was buried at a graveyard in Dhaka Cantonment on August 16 at 1 in the morning.
"During the liberation war, we were kept hostage in Pakistan. When the war was over and we were about to be repatriated, the Pakistan Army offered my father with higher rank and additional facilities as he was a senior officer of the Inter-service Intelligence, but he refused, saying, 'I want to go back to my country and serve'," Konka says.
After Col Jamil's death, during the tumultuous days of 1975, the Swedish government wanted to give the Jamil family political asylum but Mrs Jamil refused, saying, "Jamil is lying here, I won't go anywhere else, leaving him alone." On the 40th day of Jamil's murder, Mrs Jamil realised that she was expecting their fourth child. Karishma Jamil, slain Col Jamil's fourth daughter, has never seen her father.
After becoming the Chief of the Army, Gen Zia sent a condolence letter to Mrs Jamil, calling Col Jamil a martyr. "But why didn't he bring my father's killers before justice?" Konka asks. She now wants recognition for her father's sacrifice. Col Jamil's lone sacrifice did not go win vain, Bangabandhu's killer's have been brought to the book. "We don't want money from the nation, all we want is Col Jamil's recognition for bravery and sacrifice," she says.
Kajalie Shehreen Islam
The Indemnity Ordinance of 1975 which protected the killers from legal action. (click on the image for larger view)
This past week has been one of celebration. The news media have provided rigorous coverage. The people have expressed their gratitude through milad mehfils and other occasions of thanksgiving. Most surprisingly and significantly, our political parties have, for once, agreed on something.
No one can deny that justice had to be done in the case of the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 21 members of his family and household, including children and pregnant women. Yet, this very justice was denied by everyone who ever had the power to do anything about it. According to legal experts, in most of the political killings in our history, a part of the State was involved, for which reason it was difficult for the other parts to take action against them and thus have the legitimacy of their own power questioned.
Those who came to power after the killings on August 15, 1975 are said to have been the beneficiaries of the crime and so, naturally, they were not the ones bearing placards demanding justice. On the contrary, in September 1975, the government under President Khandaker Mostaque Ahmed promulgated the Indemnity Ordinance which restricted 'the taking of any legal or other proceedings in respect of certain acts or things done in connection with, or in preparation of execution of any plan for, or steps necessitating, the historical change and the proclamation of Martial Law on the morning of the 15th August, 1975'. The ordinance, which basically prevented anyone from taking legal action in the case, was later legalised in parliament. There was no scope even to question the immorality of the act, which essentially barred the process of justice.
'The case of Bangabandhu is an emblematic one,' says Barrister Sara Hossain of the Supreme Court. 'It marks the perversion of the court of justice. Not only was justice not done, but it was made impossible to take any legal action by the promulgation of the Indemnity Ordinance, because of which law enforcement officials refused to take any case pertaining to the crime.'
Justice has finally been served in one of the most brutal murders in our history.
No successive government, military or democratic, took any steps to repeal the Indemnity Ordinance of 1975 or try the killers of the Father of the Nation. The culprits roamed free and even took credit for their crimes. In an interview with the Sunday Times on May 30, 1976, Syed Farook Rahman, said to be the mastermind behind the killings, said, “Let the Bangladesh government put me on trial for the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I say it was an act of national liberation. Let them publicly call it a crime.” He even cited five reasons for which he “ordered” Mujib's killing. When the killers were finally forced to face up to their crimes, however, albeit 21 years later, the bravado faded. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they denied responsibility.
The chain of reactions which Farook and his accomplices set in motion did not end there. The struggle for power, the coups and counter-coups and killings continued, so much so that veteran journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, who followed the liberation struggle of Bangladesh and the chaotic years which followed, has termed it Bangladesh's "legacy of blood", beginning from the partially flawed leadership of Sheikh Mujib which set off the killings in the first place.
The same killers who on August 15, 1975 murdered Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family, also assassinated four national leaders -- Syed Nazrul Islam, acting president of the government-in-exile, prime minister Tajuddin Ahmed, finance minister M Mansur Ali and minister for home affairs, relief and rehabilitation AHM Qamruzzaman -- inside a prison cell, on November 3, 1975. The latter massacre was a part of a contingency plan in the event that a counter-coup occurred, basically, to wipe out a whole leadership whom the killers did not see fit to govern the nation.
On May 30, 1981, President Ziaur Rahman, who ultimately came to power after the coups and counter-coups of the 1970s, was assassinated by a faction of army officers, in approximately the 20th coup attempt against Zia himself. The killing of Brigadier Khalid Musharraf, Colonels Huda and Haider in November 1975, as well as the execution of Col. Abu Taher by Zia and the hasty trial and punishment of Zia's own killers, were also said to be politically motivated.
Political violence and assassinations in order to eliminate opposition and rise to power have spilled over into our recent history. Some have wiped out a whole leadership. Others have stifled opposition and thwarted differences. The killing of Salim and Delwar, Raufun Basunia and Nur Hossain, among others, during the Ershad era; the bomb blast at a Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) meeting in 2001 which killed seven people and injured over a hundred; the killing of Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) leader and freedom fighter Kazi Aref in 1999 and the violent deaths of Awami League (AL) leaders Mumtazuddin Ahmed and Manzurul Imam in 2003 and AL lawmaker Ahsanullah Master in 2004; the 23 people killed in the August 21 grenade attacks and the killing of former finance minister SAMS Kibria only six months later -- the cases are endless, but justice has been served in few.
In the case of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family, not only were they not punished for their crimes, but they were actually allowed to escape and even rewarded by the State with positions of prominence such as diplomatic postings abroad.
'This gave the message that you can commit the worst crimes, commit them openly, revel in them and not only will you be excused but you will be glorified,' says Barrister Sara Hossain. 'This verdict overturned that idea and set in motion the important and powerful wheels of justice.'
According to Sultana Kamal, human rights activist and advocate of the Supreme Court, it is unfortunate that the crimes were tolerated for as long as they were. 'Justice delayed is justice denied,' she says, 'but at least we ultimately got justice. Ideally, the trial should have begun immediately after the events occurred.' The delay in justice has set a trend in our culture where no human rights or legal issue is seen objectively, says Kamal. 'Everything is coloured along political lines.'
'It wasn't the AL's duty alone to try the perpetrators,' says Sultana Kamal, 'it was a national duty. But this was not done.'
But it was only when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's party, the Awami League, headed by his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, came to power in 1996 that the Indemnity Ordinance of 1975 was repealed and the process of justice initiated.
A murder case was filed in October of that year by a member of Sheikh Mujib's staff at the time who had delayed the action all those years for fear for his life. In November 1998, 15 army personnel were handed down the death sentence in a trial court, of which 12 of the death sentences were upheld by the High Court in April 2001. The convicted were: Syed Farook Rahman, Bazlul Huda, Shahriar Rashid Khan, Mohiuddin Ahmed, AKM Mohiuddin Ahmed, Khandaker Abdur Rashid, Shariful Haque Dalim, AM Rashed Chowdhury, SHMB Noor Chowdhury, Abdul Mazed and Risaldar Moslehuddin Khan. The first five were in custody and later appealed the verdict. The latter seven were absconding and are currently rumoured to be moving between countries like the US, Canada, Libya, Pakistan and Kenya.
The process was again stalled during the rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led coalition government from 2001 to 2006. Further delays were caused by judges frequently embarrassed to hear the case, thus avoiding their responsibilities. In September 2007, during the reign of the caretaker government, a three-member Appellate Division bench allowed five of the convicted to appeal the High Court order. The hearings began last month. Last week, the long-awaited verdict rejecting the appeals and upholding the death sentences of all 12 of the convicted was announced. The execution process has begun, while the verdict is under review and will be carried out following the presentation of a mercy petition to the president. For those who have been absconding and did not appeal the High Court verdict, steps will be taken to find and bring them home.
It has been difficult getting this to happen, says Barrister Sara Hossain. 'In the years between the start and end of the trial, not only was nothing done but the process was actually blocked.'
Following the verdict, the law minister during the time of the BNP-led coalition rule and currently a standing committee member of the party, Barrister Moudud Ahmed, said that the nation 'heaved a sigh of relief at the verdict'. The Jatiya Party said that it was a major step forward in the establishment of rule of law in the country. The Jamaat-e-Islami, a member of the BNP's four-party alliance, declared its respect for the judgement of the highest court. Yet all these parties and key political players did nothing to bring about this verdict or to even initiate the process during their tenure in government.
'This is sheer hypocrisy,' says Barrister Sara Hossain. 'For five years when his party was in power and he was the law minister, Barrister Moudud Ahmed did nothing to take this case forward.'
The role of the highest level of the judiciary -- even in the case of the murder of someone like Bangabandhu -- contributed to the process, says Hossain. 'The judges could have heard the cases but they were embarrassed.'
The AL in its first term began the trial proceedings, and now in its second term has seen the final judgement passed. If the AL never came to power, would justice never have been done?
As positive as this verdict may be, what does it say about the legal and judicial system of our country and the sense of justice in general? Will justice only prevail for those in power and will the system always sway along with the political circumstances? Will those who are faced by injustices every day never be vindicated unless they are politically powerful? If such high profile cases take over three decades to be resolved, what of those which do not even make news headlines?
'This verdict is positive, but it is also chilling to think about the whole difficult process of it actualising,' says Sara Hossain. 'Despite a close family member being in the highest position of power, it took this long, which shows that even if you are powerful you may not get justice, unless you are actually in power. But at least we know that it can be done.'
Though personally opposed to the death penalty, Hossain says that the verdict is comforting and reason for hope. 'Now we must look to the endless other cases of abuse and torture committed by the security forces. This judgement should allow us to stand up against such gross abuses. We must make the whole system accountable to everyone.'
The government's promise to try the perpetrators of the jail killings, the August 21 massacre, the attack on SAMS Kibria and the BDR mutiny is encouraging. But let justice not be limited to those cases which only affect the party in power. The list of pending cases is long, dark and complex, starting from former president Ziaur Rahman's killing, which the BNP itself, for whatever reason, failed to settle.
Trials are aimed to ensure justice, not to take revenge, says Sultana Kamal. 'All the injustices in our country must be dealt with, including extrajudicial killings, the jail killings and the trial of war criminals. Let this verdict be an inspiration. It should come as a lesson to our people, which says that criminals cannot get away with impunity; sooner or later, perpetrators will be held accountable and punished for their crimes. If we learn from it, then this judgement will be an achievement.'
This judgement is indeed a historic one. It brings closure to a long drawn out and bloody chapter in our history, which had set the unfortunate precedent of killers getting away with impunity. It also sets in motion a long overdue process of healing of a brutalised national psyche. Let us hope that it is also the beginning of a new chapter of doing justice in all cases in our past and future, regardless of who holds power and who the beneficiaries are. The word justice is stripped of all partisanship and leanings and implies 'the quality of being just'; let our justice system also be so.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009