• Sunday, March 01, 2015

Rashomon and the murder of Major General Abul Manzur, Bir Uttam

Lawrence Lifschultz

(i)    The Manzur documents

At the end of February 2014, a four-part article written by this author was published simultaneously in Prothom Alo & The Daily Star between February 22 and 25. It concerned the murder of Major General Abul Manzur on the night of June 1, 1981 while in custody of the Bangladesh Army inside the Chittagong Cantonment.  
On the eve of going to press with the series Prothom Alo came into possession of certain documents that raised new and troubling questions about the murder of General Manzur.  
My colleagues and I needed time to verify the authenticity of these documents, carefully study their contents and establish the historical context and circumstances in which the documents came into being. They all related to the death of General Manzur, and were drawn up fourteen years after General Manzur's murder. They came into our hands in 2014. This was thirty-three years after Manzur's death.
The documents give an account of Major General Manzur's last moments inside the Chittagong Cantonment on the night of June 1, 1981 where, by all indications, he was assassinated while in army custody. This account has similarities to the account we published in February. However, there are also differences.
The documents we have in our possession include affidavits by eight soldiers. However, we focused on the testimony of five of the eight soldiers who in their affidavits describe General Manzur's murder. What is perhaps most significant about these affidavits is that collectively these soldiers implicate a group of senior military officers in General Manzur's murder.  Furthermore, the soldiers indicate that they were part of a “special operation” and were following orders transmitted through an identifiable “Chain-of-Command.” This “Command” involved a group of senior army officers who the Nayeks and Subedars identify by name in their testimony to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Bangladesh Police.  
As described by these soldiers, the “special operation” had two parts. Their military unit was ordered to remove General Manzur from the protection of the civilian authorities by extracting him from police custody. On June 1, 1981, Genera Manzur surrendered along with his family to the police and was being held at the Hathazari Police Thana outside Chittagong. Manzur asked the police that for his own security and that of his family he not to be turned over to the Army. At the time police officials in Hathazari, under instructions from the IGP A.B.M.G. Kibria, were refusing to transfer Manzur to military custody without explicit orders from the Acting President, Justice Sattar.
As discussed in Part III (“The Murder of Major-General Abul Manzur – Bir Uttam,” February 24, 2014), both Air Vice Marshall Sadruddin and the Inspector General of Police A.B.M.G. Kibria attempted during a tense meeting in Dhaka to persuade Justice Sattar not to turn General Manzur over to the Army. There is no doubt, based on each of their independent testimonies, that these two men, high-ranking officials in their own right, feared that Manzur's life would be in danger were he to be handed over to the military unit which was then enroute to Hathazari from the Chittagong Cantonment.
While meetings were going on at Bangabhaban in Dhaka the army unit from Chittagong had unilaterally entered the Police Thana at Hathazari and demanded that Manzur be turned over to them. There was a tense standoff between the Police and the Army. The police were resisting the Army unit's increasingly aggressive demands. Meanwhile, the seniormost police official in the country, IGP Kibria was arguing with Chief of Army Staff, General H.M. Ershad about the importance from a security point of view of General Manzur remaining under the protection of the civilian police.
The testimonies of five soldiers who were part of the military unit which arrived at the Police Thana that day bear out the fact that Air Vice Marshal Sadruddin's and IGP Kibria's fear regarding General Manzur's safety were well founded.  
The soldiers claimed in their 1995 testimony to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Bangladesh Police that they were told by a superior officer before they left Chittagong that once General Manzur was in their custody they would be required to “eliminate” him at a “convenient place.” In short, the soldiers were briefed and informed prior to their departure for Hathazari that the most important aspect of their “special operation” was to carry out the murder/execution of General Manzur.
The soldiers were informed by their Commanding Officer, Captain Emdad, that this order came from the Army's “High Command.” According to their own testimony they understood this element of their mission before they left the Cantonment and headed toward Hathazari.
As this special military unit approached Hathazari, the fierce argument was continuing in Justice Sattar's office with Sadruddin and Kibria arguing against General Ershad's insistent demand that Manzur be turned over to the army unit.
In Chittagong, senior civilian and police officials wondered why they were not receiving definitive orders from Dhaka unaware that their superiors in Dhaka were fighting for Manzur's life. According to an army source, Manzur had already told a colleague in Dhaka that Ershad planned to “finish him off” and asked the police not to release him into military custody.
The civil administration had already proposed an alternative to their superiors in Dhaka whereby Manzur and his family would be flown to Dhaka on a special Biman flight. His security would have remained under the authority of the civilian police with the Army kept at a distance.
This plan to protect General Manzur from clear threats to his personal security was never implemented. Manzur's enemies within the army could not afford for him survive. Yet, there was still a chance he might live to tell his side of the story of what had transpired in Chittagong during these confusing and tumultuous days. At that juncture on June 1, it all depended on a decision by the Acting President, Justice Sattar.
However, Justice Sattar in the end rejected Air Vice Marshall Sadruddin's and IGP Kibria's concerns about General Manzur's security and yielded to General Ershad. By this act Sattar, intentionally or unintentionally, sealed Manzur's fate.
Air Marshall Sadurddin testified that he had told Sattar: “Sir, please make sure that nothing happens to Manzur and that he is given a [fair] trial. If anything happens to Manzur, you [Sattar] will be answerable to the nation.” Sattar assured Air Marshall Sadruddin that there would be a trial. Despite Sattar's naïve, or possibly not so naïve, assurances that very evening General Manzur was murdered in Army custody. This was precisely what Sadruddin and Kibria feared would happen, and it did happen.
General Manzur would never have his day in court to prove his innocence and to defend his allegation that General Ershad and his colleagues in Dhaka were attempting to frame him as part of a larger plan. Manzur made this claim in a series of telephone conversations with General Moinul Choudhury, Adjutant General of the Bangladesh Army and General Mir Shawkat Ali between May 30 and June 1, 1981.
The very same soldiers who in 1981 took Manzur into “safe keeping” and signed an official document to the police confirming that General Manzur had been officially transferred into their custody, would in 1995, fourteen years later,  describe to CID investigators how they had been ordered by their commanding officer to murder Manzur once they had him custody.
According to documents in our possession, these soldiers also claimed to have witnessed the actual murder of General Manzur inside the Chittagong Cantonment. In their testimony they have identified the individual soldier among them who allegedly shot General Manzur at the behest of a superior officer.
The documents also include important testimony given by the then Deputy Commissioner of the Chittagong Metropolitan Police in 1981, Ali Mohammad Iqbal. All the affidavits derive from testimonies that were recorded and transcribed by Criminal Investigation Department (CID) investigators in 1995.

(ii)    The role of Aminul Haque: Attorney General & Chief Prosecutor
At the outset it is important to understand the context in which the CID investigation was initiated fourteen years after General Manzur's murder.  Why suddenly was the CID brought in to investigate this crime a decade and a half after Manzur's killing? Had certain circumstances previously impeded their work?
In December 1990, the decade of dictatorship under General H.M. Ershad, was brought to an end following nearly a year of mass anti-government demonstrations. Ershad was compelled to resign. A caretaker government under the Chief Justice, Shahabuddin Ahmed, placed General Ershad under arrest and organised new elections.
At this time, Justice Shahbuddin appointed a prominent and highly respected attorney, Aminul Haque, to the position of Attorney General. In February 1991, elections were held and a BNP coalition came to power, led by Khaleda Zia. Although Aminul Haque was close to the Awami League, Khaleda Zia kept Haque in the position of Attorney General.
Khaleda was apparently keenly interested in Haque continuing the specific investigation into the Chittagong events of 1981. In the months after her husband had been assassinated, Khalea Zia had publicly accused General Ershad of having organised her husband's assassination. It was a rather extraordinary accusation. But, Aminul Haque believed there to be substance in the allegation.
During the period of the Caretaker Government, Aminul Haque began an investigation into the murder of Major-General Abul Manzur, but this inevitably involved a simultaneous inquiry into General Ziaur Rahman's death. According to colleagues of Aminul Haque, the Attorney General's office by 1993-94 had developed extensive documentation in the case and was prepared to move forward and further deepen its inquiries.
During the previous decade of Ershad's military dictatorship it was impossible to investigate allegations of Ershad's alleged involvement in General Manzur's and General Zia's deaths. Anyone making serious inquiries into these matters could have put their own lives and those of their families at risk.
By all accounts Aminul Haque was an unusual man. He was admired for his professionalism and integrity. Moreover, he was personally linked to critical moments in Bangladesh's history. He was the older brother of Sgt. Zahurul Haq who had been shot while in custody in February 1969. Sgt. Haq was one of the accused in the Agartala Conspiracy Case. His murder while in Pakistani detention sparked violent protests in East Pakistan. During the Liberation War Aminul Haque served as a combatant with the Mukti Bahini in S-Force under Major Saifullah.
In 1981, he was one of the lawyers attempting to defend the 13 Mukti Bahini officers who were tortured, summarily tried in an “express” Court Martial and hanged for the murder of General Ziaur Rahman. It was alleged but never proven that the accused had conspired with General Manzur to assassinate Zia.
The principal “evidence” in the trial of the thirteen officers were confessions that had been extracted by torture. When brought before the Court Martial each man repudiated his confession and declared he had been tortured. Some took off their shirts to show where the scars and burns were on their bodies. Military officers and civilian lawyers representing the accused publicly declared they were given no opportunity to adequately defend their clients. Aminul Haque was among the defense attorneys.
With the fall of Ershad, dormant judicial processes were able to function once again. General Manzur's older brother, Abul Mansur, in February 1995, filed a murder case against General Ershad. Immediately after the case was filed the CID began taking the testimonies of potential witnesses. These included the testimony of Air Vice Marshall Sadruddin and the Inspector General of Police A.B.M.G. Kibria. We have reviewed the testimony of both these men in great detail in Parts III & IV of this series. (See Prothom Alo & The Daily Star, February 24-25, 2014)
This initial period under the leadership of a dynamic and highly focused Attorney General saw serious investigative work being accomplished for the first time in the Manzur case. In June 1995, Abdul Kahar Akand, an Assistant Superintendent of Police of the Criminal Investigation Department, filed formal charges against General Ershad and four other military officers in what henceforth became known as the “Manzur Murder Case.” The affidavits we have obtained date from this period.
The writer was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong). He has written for The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Nation (New York) and the BBC. He is the author and editor of several books including Hiroshima's Shadow, Why Bosnia?, and Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution. He can be reached by email at—OpenDoor.Lifschultz@gmail.com

(To be continued)

Published: 12:00 am Saturday, April 19, 2014

TAGS: murder of Manzur Lawrence Lifschultz Major General Abul Manzur

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