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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


A landmark ruling convicts Mujib's assassins


A DAY BEFORE HE was to go on a top-secret mission, Maj. Farooq Rahman wanted one last piece of advice from Andha Hafiz, a blind sage in Chittagong. "Tell him I'm going to do it for Islam and the State," Farooq said to his wife Farida, who set off from Dhaka to contact the holy man. When she found him, he listened patiently to Farooq's message. The old man reassured her that her husband and his men would be safe. "I have placed them in the hands of God," he said. "He will take care of them."

Last week, 23 years after his mission dramatically altered the course of Bangladesh's history and boosted his career, Farooq finally ran out of luck. He was among 15 men sentenced to death by a Dhaka court for their role in the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and its first prime minister. Four other people were acquitted for lack of evidence. It was Farooq who masterminded the coup d'etat, which also led to the massacre of 15 members of Mujib's family and eight aides. The murders shocked the world, not least because Mujib was idolized by his people as Bangabandhu, or Friend of Bengal.

Justice has been so long in coming because a succession of governments not only opposed a trial of the killers, but also sent some of them, including Farooq, abroad to serve as diplomats. Efforts at prosecution gained momentum only in 1996, when Mujib's daughter Sheikh Hasina, 51, led her Awami League to power. Late that year, she won a crucial parliamentary mandate to overturn an amnesty granted by a previous administration to Mujib's killers. Dhaka has also successfully lobbied foreign governments to deny asylum to the coup plotters and is working to extradite 11 of them sentenced to death in absentia.

In fact, a death sentence for Mujib's killers was widely expected. It also found general approval among the public. "There were good reasons for such a verdict," says Imtiaz Ahmed, a political science professor at Dhaka University. "The culprits never tried to hide their actions and some are self-confessed killers."

Bangladeshis revere Mujib because, with India's help, he won independence for his nation in 1971 after 24 years of repressive rule by Pakistan. Even so, public affection for him waned as he failed to control corruption, indulged in political favoritism and became unpopular with the army for appearing to curtail its powers. Seven months before he was killed, Mujib replaced parliamentary democracy with one-party presidential rule - a move seen as the coup's immediate trigger.

The Nov. 8 verdict is a milestone in Bangladesh politics. The nation has experienced three military coups and 19 failed coup attempts, but never have putsch leaders been tried in a civil court. To make an example of the punishment, district judge Kazi Golam Rasul sentenced the 15 plotters to death by firing squad in public - an unprecedented and possibly unconstitutional directive. Farooq, who sat impassively in court along with two other co-conspirators, says he will appeal the verdict. But the men are unlikely to escape death. In case of a technical hitch, Rasul has ordered that the convicts be hanged.

For all that, the judgment had a subdued impact. One reason: large-scale violence in Dhaka. The trouble began on Nov. 7 when a rally by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former premier Khaleda Zia was disrupted, apparently by Awami supporters. Clashes among rival activists and police left one person dead and over 100 injured. Zia accused the government of breaking up her rally and called a three-day general strike, leading to at least two more deaths. The Awami League said BNP activists had turned violent to divert public attention from the verdict.

Amid the unrest, one of Mujib's assassins returned home. Two hours after the judgment, a Bangladesh air force plane brought Bazlul Huda to Dhaka on a flight from Bangkok following his extradition. He was among the dozen coup plotters living abroad in defiance of a 1996 government deadline to return and answer for their crimes. Huda was one of three young majors who led 120 heavily armed soldiers to storm Mujib's Dhaka residence in a pre-dawn attack on Aug. 15, 1975. After the premier's bodyguards were gunned down, the three officers began a hunt for Mujib. They found him rushing up to the first floor - and finished him with a burst of machine-gun fire. Mujib's two daughters, abroad at the time, were the only immediate family members to survive.

For years, elder daughter Hasina did not move anything in her ancestral residence, preserving evidence in a nightmare tableau. Today, the house is a national museum. Hasina visited it after the trial, wandering in the rooms where marks of blood, bone and bullets can still be seen. "Bangladesh will be free of a curse the day the killers are executed," she said tearfully. Perhaps that is the only way the nation can finally turn the page on one of the darkest chapters in its short history.

- With additional reporting by Syed Murtaza Ali/Chittagong

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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