Bangladesh: A Trial Ends After 34 Years – Closure At Last?

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, Bangladesh authorities executed five ex-army officers for their role in the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – the country's independence leader and its first President. Mujib, or Bongobondhu (friend of Bengalis) as he was popularly known as, was assassinated along with most of his family members, relatives and aides during a coup by young army officers on August 15, 1975. Two of his daughters survived, as they were out of the country at the time. The elder of the two, Sheikh Hasina, is the leader of Awami League and the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

Bongobondhu  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman And Bangladeshi Flag. Image by Ujwala Prabhu. Used under a Creative Commons license

Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman And Bangladeshi Flag. Image by Ujwala Prabhu. Used under a Creative Commons license

For the supporters of Mujib, it had been a long, 34 year wait for justice and closure. Soon after the assassination, the newly installed President, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmed formulated the Indemnity Ordinance which offered legal immunity to those involved in the coup. It would be much later, in 1996, that Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party would come into power and revoke the ordinance, thereby clearing the path for trial and conviction of those involved in the massacre. In 1998, 15 of the 20 accused were given death sentences by a judge. However, most of them had by then fled the country. Only 4 were in custody and later one more person was jailed after being extradited from the US. Nevertheless, the trial dragged its feet. When Hasina lost the 2001 elections, the next elected government did not show any interest in furthering the case. Furthermore, the usual bureacracy of the judiciary and the politicization of the process resulted in the trial slowing down. On returning to power as Prime Minister with a landslide victory in the 2008 Parliamentary Elections, Hasina promised a speedy conclusion of the trials. Finally the judicial process reached its conclusion earlier this month, with the President also turning down the convicts’ plea for clemency. Five convicts were hanged, with six others still absconding.

As news of the late night execution spread, hordes of Mujib supporters crowded outside the Dhaka Central Jail. Emotions ran high. For many, it was a time for closure. Tiktiki at Unheard Voice wrote:

The execution of the convicted murderers of Bangabandhu has happened. People started gathering around jail gate last night. The sms-es started flying. The journalists started gathering with cameras. There was a sense of inevitability around it. Yet, when it happened, how did the people react? I talked to one of them who until recently believed this will never happen. ‘Nothing to celebrate’, ‘End of a tragic chapter’, he said. But more importantly he said, it gives him a sense of closure.

In the comment section of the same post, Robin wrote the following:

I personally hoped hasina & Rehana and other members would recommend to the Court commutation to life in prison without the possibility of parole. I dont even know if that is possible in Bangladesh. Neverteless this was a long time coming & justice has prevailed however flawed and delayed.

As ambulances left the jail premises with the dead bodies, the crowd apparently became a bit unruly, with some among them hurtling shoes and stones at the passing vehicles, thereby giving vent to pent up emotions. However, surprisingly there were no significant public demonstrations during the rest of the day. Brian Palmer noted in his Letter from Dhaka:

The streets in the Dhanmondi section of Dhaka, where I am now, are traffic-choked and chaotic, but no more so than usual. Bangladeshi journalist colleagues report no major disturbances or celebrations other than last night’s deathwatch. They are slightly perplexed by the lack of public demonstrations and tell me they suspect that the ruling party, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, instructed its people not to make a ruckus. The opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has issued no statements. This was an absolutely momentous event with very little public drama.

However, emotions ran high among netizens who reflected these emotions in their writings online. Shamim Chowdhury, from Maryland, USA wrote in the forum Daily Online Alochona:

…A shameful chapter been closed ushering return of trust on system of justice. Honor has returned home leaving dishonoring history behind. For last thirty-four years we have mourned Bangabandhu's departure with distress and guilty feeling for not been able to bring the killers to justice. Now justice has been served, we will be able to face the memory of our greatest leader, our friend, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

There were plenty of tweets and re-tweets announcing the news of the execution. While some tweets spoke of delayed justice and closure, others wondered if it will impact the nation's current political scenario.

@a_mahapatra Bangladesh executes Mujib‘s killers. “Justice delayed is justice denied” but at least it isn't an injustice!
@SumonCNNIBN Great day for Bangladesh. Founding father Mujib‘s killers finally punished..remdeption for a nation figthing devlis (sic) of radicalism
@pragmatic_d: The divisive politics in Bangladesh won't end with the hanging of killers of Mujib.

The issue of the long wait and delayed justice was brought up in many blog posts. For example, Abu Sayyed Ziauddin mentioned in Amarblog [bn]:

অনেক মানুষ বিশ্বাস হারিয়ে ফেলেছিলো। কেউ কেউ বলতো – এই বিচার হবে না। কেউবা বলতো – সম্ভব না এই বিচার। কি দরকার বিচারের কথা বলে…কিন্তু অনেক মানুষ বিশ্বাস হারায়নি।

Many people had lost faith. Some would say, this trial will never be completed, others would say justice would not be possible so what is the use of talking about it?…But many people believed it would be possible, they held on to their hope.

Firoz announced in a post in Globalization and South Asia :

Justice Delayed, But not Denied: Proved in Bangladesh

To many Bangladeshis, this trial was as much about reaffirming their faith in the judicial system and justice. It was also a time for healing. J at Shadakalo blog commented as follows:

Madam Prime Minister, we know how easy it would have been for the five convicted killers to get caught in a “riot” and be accidentally killed. As cross-fires are happening every day outside the jail, one could have happened inside, too. Thank you for letting the law take its own course…Perhaps the face of your little brother will not haunt your sleep any more. You have aided justice to prevail. Now let the healing begin. Work to make this the shonar bangla your father promised, that the country expected from him. Complete his unfinished work.

Blogger Himu at Sachalayatan used this opportunity to remind the Prime Minister Hasina that there yet remained the task of bringing the war criminals of 1971 to trial. [bn]

পুরো রাষ্ট্রযন্ত্রকে দেখি এই বিচারের কাজে সক্রিয়। মনে আশা জাগে, হয়তো বাংলাদেশের প্রতিটি মানুষের হত্যার বিচারেই রাষ্ট্র সমান আগ্রহ, উদ্যম আর ধৈর্য নিয়ে নিয়োজিত হবে। সুবিচারের যে দৈত্যটিকে বোতলে পুরে তার মুখে বঙ্গবন্ধুকে ছিপি হিসেবে আটকে দেয়া হয়েছিলো, সেই ছিপিটি হয়তো মাত্র অপসারিত হলো। প্রধানমন্ত্রী শেখ হাসিনা…জাতির পিতার হত্যার বিচার তো সরকারের আগ্রহে এগিয়ে গেলো, এবার জাতির হত্যার বিচারে উদ্যোগ নিন। যুদ্ধাপরাধীদের বিচার চাই।

I see the entire judicial process active in this trial. I feel hopeful that for every citizen who is killed, the same energy, patience and eagerness for justice will be shown by the judicial machinery. Justice has now been uncorked like the genie from a bottle. Madame Prime Minister, the conviction of the assassins of the Father of the Nation marched ahead with the blessings of the government. Now please show the same diligence in bringing to book those who tried to murder the nation. We want trial and punishment of the war criminals.

Amidst this outpouring of emotions however, there are some voices of dissent too. The assassins have their share of sympathizers too.

At Somewherein for example, in the comment section of a post by Chintito darshonik, blogger Nissongo Pothik wrote the following [bn]:

…বঙ্গবন্ধুর পরিবারের খুনীদের ফাঁসি হয়েছে ঠিকই কিন্তু তারা কেন, কোন পরিস্থিতিতে বাধ্য হয়ে সেদিন এমন হত্যাকান্ড ঘটিয়েছিলো তার কারণসমূহও আমাদের পর্যালোচনা করা উচিত।

It is true that the murderers of Bongobondu's family have been hanged but why, under what circumstances they went on such a killing spree, we should also discuss and analyze those reasons.

Another blogger Hitlar09 raises some questions regarding the motivations behind the coup says that it is equally important to find out the real reasons that prompted the young officers to kill their once beloved leader. [bn]

সাজা প্রাপ্ত সকলেই বীর মুক্তিযোদ্ধা ছিলেন। কেন তারা হত্যা করলেন তাদের প্রিয় এই নেতাকে?? সে যাই হোক তাদের ভুলের প্রায়শ্চিত্ত তাদের করতে হয়েছে, এবং বীর মুক্তযোদ্ধা হওয়া সত্তেও এদেশে তাদেরকে ফাঁসির কাষ্ঠে ঝুলতে হয়েছে… আমার প্রশ্ন কারা তাদের অনুপ্রানিত করেছে এই নৃশংস হত্যাযজ্ঞে?? কারা সুবিধা লুটেছে ১৫ই আগষ্টের?? তাদের কি বিচার হবে না??

The convicted were all brave freedom fighters. Why did they kill their beloved leader? Whatever it is, they have had to pay for it. Despite being freedom fighters they had to die at the gallows. My question is who had pushed them/ motivated them to take part in the grisly massacre? Who reaped the benefits of that 15th August? Will they not be brought to trial?

Some bloggers also expressed discomfort at the public venting anger at the vehicles carrying the dead bodies of the executed men.

Shopnochari at Amarblog noted that extreme hate often makes the one who hates as inhuman as the one he had hated for inhumanity.

যেকোন অপরাধের শাস্তি হওয়া উচিত। আর এত বড় একটা অপরাধের শাস্তি হওয়াটা খুবই জরুরি ছিল… কোথায় যেন একবার পড়েছিলাম – কাউকে খুব বেশী ঘৃণা করতে নেই। ঘৃণার মাত্রা ছাড়িয়ে গেলে যাকে ঘৃণা করছি এক সময় আমরা তার কাতারেই দাঁড়িয়ে যাই।

Every crime deserves punishment and it was really essential to punish those who committed such a big crime. However, somewhere I had read that one should not hate another person too much. If hatred crosses a limit, then we become exactly like the one we hated.


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