34 years for justice
What caused the delay of as long as 34 years in holding the trial of the killings of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman?
The incidents of August 15, 1975, constitute the darkest part in the history of Bangladesh's politics that brought for the first time the change in the country's state power through a bloodbath.
The darkness deepened further in the form of the Indemnity Ordinance, which was introduced by Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed and then given constitutional legitimacy by General Ziaur Rahman, to protect the killers of Bangabandhu and obstruct justice.
No government took initiatives to ensure justice to the killing of the country's first president until Sheikh Mujib's own party Awami League came to power in 1996 under the leadership of his daughter Sheikh Hasina.
"Thought about the security of my life and other various adversities led me to delay filing of the case regarding the incident [Bangabandhu's murder]," a note from the complainant AFM Mohitul Islam in the FIR (first information report) filed with Dhanmondi Police Station on October 2, 1996 gives an idea of how adverse the situation was after Bangabandhu's assassination for filing a case. (See Mohitul's detailed interview on page--7)
In November 1996, Hasina's government repealed the black indemnity ordinance of 1975, paving the way for the trial.
Following the investigation, submission of charge sheet and framing of charges, the trial court completed its proceedings on November 8, 1998, pronouncing death sentences to 15 accused and acquitting four others.
However, the trial was to face many political and legal hurdles that would contribute to further prolong the whole trial process since the verdict of trial court.
The uncertainty started clouding the fate of the case as first several High Court judges and then Supreme Court felt embarrassed and preferred to refrain from holding the trial at that time.
The reasons for the judges' embarrassment could not be known, but the matter was widely discussed by the people.
The then chief justice Latifur Rahman, who later became the chief of a caretaker government, writes briefly in his book "Tattabodhayak Sorkarer Dinguli O Amar Katha" (the Days of Caretaker Government and My Version) about the judges' embarrassment.
"Usually, judges feel embarrassment with regards to cases which they had conducted as a lawyer, or if any of their relatives or special friends is involved in the case, or if the judges were somehow directly involved with the case. Otherwise no judge can decline to receive any case," Justice Latifur Rahman says in his book.
He observes that in the past judges used to write "I am embarrassed to hear this case" in the court's order book and the chief justice would send the case to another court right away. "However, it doesn't seem to me that judges used to feel embarrassed much at that time," he says.
"When most of the senior judges felt embarrassed to hear Bangabandhu killing case, it seemed to the [Supreme Judicial] Council that the judges were reluctant to hear the case and avoiding responsibilities," says Justice Latifur Rahman who was the chief justice from January 1, 2000 to February 28, 2001.
The hearing of the death reference finally started in the High Court on June 28, 2000, about 20 months after the verdict of the trial court and completed on April 30, 2001 after the judgment of third judge.
Judges' embarrassment in the Appellate Division of Supreme Court further delayed completion of the trial of the historic case.
The case was not heard for a single day during the BNP's five-year tenure (2001-2006) because of a "lack of judges" in the Appellate Division.
At one point, Justice Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, who was the chief justice from March 1, 2001 to June 17, 2002, suggested appointing a judge on an ad hoc basis for hearing the case. The BNP-led government, however, made no move.
A three-member bench was finally formed in the Supreme Court, after the Fakhruddin Ahmed-led caretaker government took office, to hear the leave-to-appeal in the Bangabandhu killing case. The bench allowed the convicts to file regular appeals against the High Court verdict.
But hearing of their regular appeals was ensured after the present Awami League-led alliance government appointed a few judges to the Supreme Court and set up a five-member special bench to hear the appeals.
The hearing started on October 5, 2009. After 29 days of hearing, the bench fixed November 19 for the much-awaited final verdict in the case.