Thirty Years On, Killers of Bangladesh’s Founding Father to Be Hanged

Thirty Years On, Killers of Bangladeshs Founding Father to Be Hanged

The home of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, sits
down a tree-lined street in an affluent corner of the capital, Dhaka.
Tourists and locals file into the compound daily to view its insides and his
personal belongings — a dressing gown, old books, his favorite pipe. But
they also come to see signs of his death. On Aug. 15, 1975, soldiers rushed
into the house at dawn, shooting indiscriminately, killing Mujib — as he
is known — and 19 others. Traces of the blood that splattered the
staircase where he fell are preserved beneath panes of glass, as are bullet
holes on the opposite wall. But while Bangladeshis have gathered here often
over the years to mourn Mujib’s passing, it has taken more than 30 years for
some of his assassins to finally face justice.

On Thursday, with the backing of the government led by Mujib’s daughter,
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh Supreme Court rejected the
appeal of five former army officers convicted of killing him and
participating in a coup that toppled his rule 34 years ago. They had been
sentenced to death in 1996, but a change in government led to the case being
stymied in court. Now, the five are to be hanged. Thousands cheered the verdict outside the court, while
some lawmakers broke down in tears of triumph. “The judgment … is a new
milestone for the nation,” hailed an editorial in the Daily Star, a
leading Dhaka-based English-language daily.

To outsiders, this celebration of a justice long deferred may seem a bit too
rapturous. But it cuts at the heart of the political traumas that have
plagued Bangladesh since its bloody independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Mujib had been President of the new country for just four years before a
coup hatched by disgruntled military officers, some of whom harbored
Islamist or pro-Pakistani sentiments, led to his assassination and the
installation of a military government. Since then, Bangladesh has endured a
succession of army-run regimes, as well as a period of dysfunctional
democratic rule marred by corruption and partisan bickering. “What you’re
dealing with is a very fractured, highly politicized society,” says Ali
Riaz, chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State

The case against Mujib’s suspected killers only moved forward when his
daughter Hasina rose to power in 1996 as head of the secular, center-left
Awami League party he had founded. Hasina’s government lifted the legal
ordinance put into place by Mujib’s usurpers that protected the coup’s
conspirators. But in 2001, Hasina was ousted in an election by her bitter
rival, Khaleda Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman, a general who ruled
Bangladesh not long after Mujib’s death and who was also killed by a group
of rebellious army officers. The case fell into legal limbo, and the feuding
between the two women and their political parties grew so rancorous over the
years that the military once again stepped in, throwing both Hasina and Zia
temporarily into jail.

This time, though, the generals relented and democratic elections were held
in late 2008. Hasina took office again with a massive mandate, giving many
Bangladeshis hope that the country could finally put its destructive,
divisive politics behind it. Years of political upheaval, analysts say, have
damaged the rule of law in Bangladesh and created a culture of impunity for
both powerful politicians as well as for a military that has often acted as
a law unto itself. The Supreme Court verdict was a sign, says the Daily
Star editorial, “that the wheels of justice have finally rolled.”

Still, much more needs to be done in a country beset by corruption and
wracked by poverty. While Hasina’s government now intends to pursue the
other fugitive army officers convicted of killing Mujib — they are
rumored to be in countries like Libya and Zimbabwe — it has also gone
about shielding some of its own leaders from charges of graft, an ominous
return to past practices. More worryingly, it has done little to rein in the
military, which was accused earlier this year by Human Rights Watch of
participating in extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances.

Some suggest that true stability will never exist in Bangladesh as long as
an incident even older than Mujib’s assassination remains buried. When
Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — split from West Pakistan in 1971,
the Pakistani army embarked on a killing campaign, leaving as many as 3
million people dead. Many Bangladeshis who abetted and served alongside the
West Pakistani army remained in key positions of power in the years
following Mujib’s death. Now, there’s a growing call for the government to
launch an inquiry into those suspected of war crimes and eventually set up
tribunals. It’s unclear whether Hasina’s government will risk reopening the
country’s many old wounds by ordering a fresh investigation into the
killings. “Still, to make progress, you have to address the past,” says
Riaz. “They have to do it for the sake of Bangladesh.”

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