Crimes and punishment

An ambulance carrying the bodies of five former military officers who were executed is seen outside the Dhaka central jail on January 28, 2010

An ambulance carrying the bodies of five former military officers who were executed is seen outside the Dhaka central jail on January 28, 2010  

“Truth and justice have finally prevailed.” This has been the near-universal reaction in Bangladesh to the execution on January 28 of five of the 12 former Army officers who in 1975 assassinated Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Indeed, nearly 35 years after he and his family members, bar Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehena, his two daughters, were gunned down within three-and-a-half years of the country securing Independence from Pakistan, justice has been done to at least half the number of assassins who were behind bars.

The historic trial and the execution of the convicts were no easy tasks. It took almost 13 years to complete the process. The trial took place under the normal law of the land, thanks to the Sheikh Hasina government that came to power through democratic elections a little more than a year ago. The execution of the killers of Bangabandhu, the popular title Mujib still enjoys for having led the struggle for the nation’s freedom, amounted to a return to the rule of law, and a warning that anyone who commits a crime should not expect to get away with it easily. It is history that the small South Asian country has created.

For Bangladesh, which fought and finally won the liberation war against the Pakistan military and its religious-political subjugation, the execution of the order of the nation’s apex court means more than merely restoring the rule of law. It marks a victory for the secular sprit of the 1971 Liberation War, and a new defeat for those who had unmistakably sought to revive and strengthen the spirit of 1947 that divided British India on communal lines, a spirit that was once thought to have died off.

Bangladesh was haunted for more than three decades by the feeling of guilt that stemmed from justice remaining to be done. Following the August 15, 1975 bloodbath, the country was forced to undertake a reverse journey from a secular nationhood to sectarian Islamisation, almost true to the Pakistani format. It was against this that the liberation fighters shed their blood. Truth to tell, while the country in general welcomed the trial, the hidden masterminds and beneficiaries of the 1975 changeover have become highly disturbed, indeed alarmed.

A good number of people preferred taking the option of forgetting the ‘black chapter’ to start a new one marked by amity and understanding. Perhaps this is what Bangladesh needed most. But they all had mis-perceived the very fundamentals of the nation’s political crisis, that it was a huge moral burden on the collective national psyche that the trial could not be completed.

For those who opposed the country’s Independence on religious lines and were hand in glove with the Pakistan Army, and who unfortunately led the nation for 30 of its 39 years of existence in collaboration with military and pseudo-democratic rulers, the handing down of the death sentences to the convicts was a blow.

Without doubt, they have all been shocked, rather alarmed. Therefore it is but natural that they would now seek to find every conceivable way to destabilise the Sheikh Hasina government. They also fear that the new government would go for another trial to bring to justice the war criminals who were at work during the Liberation War, and go for changes to the country’s Constitution removing certain retrograde provisions introduced under successive military regimes.

Nevertheless, the execution of all bar six of the convicted fugitives has generated a new hope that never again would a murderous conspiracy make it possible to overturn the constitutional path and push the country into a dark phase. The judicial executions have ensured that no sinister forces will rise in the future to put the nation’s democracy at risk through extra-constitutional means.

It is a hope that may be generally cherished, but given the country’s ground realities such an expectation could also face enormous opposition.

There is no doubt that the 1975 assassinations drilled huge holes in the country’s political sphere. They were also instrumental in forcing the new-born nation away from the ideals that led to its attaining Independence from Pakistan. There may have been differences in degree, but all the governments that were in power in Dhaka after the 1975 massacre – from General Ziaur Rahman’s to General H.M. Ershad’s to Begum Khaleda Zia’s — refused to bring the perpetrators to book. In fact, they rehabilitated the self-confessed killers socially and politically, and distorted the nation’s meaning of its Independence itself. They virtually took the nation in the reverse direction and systematically undermined democratic values.

As all legal procedures were conformed to and all avenues were exhausted over the last 13 years since the filing of the case in 1996, the convicts who once pronounced their heroism by becoming “self-confessed killers,” at one stage prayed for mercy. Understandably, their mercy petitions to the country’s President, and the last resort of reviewing the court’s judgment, were rejected. One of the most important aspects of the whole process is that the convicts availed themselves of all conceivable legal benefits before being sent to the gallows. By any standard, it was a fair trial.

The trial and execution of the killers is a new beginning for Bangladesh, although the country still has many an unfinished task to be accomplished. While the trial of the war criminals of the 1971 war is yet to start, six more convicts of the 1975 massacre are still at large. The execution of the five detained convicts will heal the nation’s emotional wounds to a great extent, but it may take more time for the wounds caused by the extrajudicial murders that had bedevilled the political process to heal.

The Mujib murder was not a “normal” criminal offence; it was a deep-rooted one. It had serious implications for the nation for many years to come. The massacre was linked with country’s attainment of Independence from Pakistan. Whatever justification the murderers had chosen to project in order to defend their mischief, ordinary Bangladeshis have hardly acknowledged them. In fact, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, became an even more popular and politically inspiring figure over the last three decades.

(Haroon Habib, journalist and author, is himself a veteran of the Bangladesh Liberation War. He can be reached at

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