Abu Taher and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh
In this regard, let me turn the clock back to the period of September-October 1977. I was then living in England. I had taken a sabbatical from my work as a journalist and took up a place up at Cambridge University to pursue graduate work in economics. In the autumn of 1977 Amnesty International approached me for my views on a developing crisis in Bangladesh. At the time Amnesty was receiving a flood of confidential reports describing mass executions that were taking place in Bangladesh following an apparent revolt in the armed forces.
In December 1977, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Martin Ennals, made a special journey to Dhaka to discuss the executions with senior government officials in Bangladesh. Ennals met General Zia and received assurances from Zia that "executions of those accused of having been involved in the September and October attempted coups had ceased."
But, after Ennals' return to London, Amnesty reported: "In spite of these assurances [by General Zia], Amnesty International has strong reasons to believe that executions of military men…were still continuing…In a cable of January 19, 1978, the Secretary General expressed profound concern at reports alleging that hundreds of military men had been executed since October 2 and that executions were continuing."
On March 5, 1978, The Sunday Times of London reported: "About 600 servicemen have been executed in Bangladesh since October in a bloodbath only partially exposed by last week's Amnesty International report…A former senior air force officer told The Sunday Times that more than 800 servicemen were convicted by military tribunals -- in some cases little more than kangaroo courts -- after the uprisings in Bogra on September 30 and Dhaka on October 2. About 600…were executed by firing squad or hanging in Dhaka."
On March 25, 1978, the Economic & Political Weekly of Mumbai reported: "Although Amnesty is only prepared to say "at least 130 and perhaps several hundred" have been executed, some informed sources in Dhaka have put the figure as high as seven hundred. There is no way to confirm an accurate figure. One description circulating in Dhaka in typewritten form alleges that executions were carried out on telephonic orders from Army Headquarters. No documents are being kept for fear of future accountability. In one instance at Dhaka Central Jail detained soldiers were said to have been awakened late in the night and told to pack up."
"They were told orders had come through for their release. A general atmosphere of jubilation spread through the cell block, as jawans gathered up their belongings and were led to the front jail gate. There, it is reported, they confronted an army officer and a special paramilitary force. Death sentences were suddenly read out, and amidst near hysterical cries that their lives be spared, jawans were taken off and hanged seventeen or eighteen at a time. Throughout, according to the report which also lists the names of those hanged that night, "the authority remained cool and composed amidst the cries and wailings of the soldiers being hanged. There are other stories circulating in Dhaka of soldiers in firing squads being arrested for refusing to shoot when ordered. No newspapers dare print any of this, and therefore, an authoritative confirmation within the country's press is impossible to find."
As the grim news continued to reach London, I was asked by Amnesty International what I might recommend they do in order to attempt to bring these mass killings to an end. I suggested to Stephanie Grant, the Director of Research at Amnesty, that she urgently organise a meeting between a small group and Sean MacBride, the founding father of Amnesty International. MacBride was also the man most responsible for the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights.
The meeting was arranged on short notice. The four of us -- Sean MacBride, Stephanie Grant, Yvonne Terlingen and I -- sat in Yvonne Terlingen's tiny room at Amnesty's London headquarters to craft an improbable plan. Yvonne Terlingen was then Director of South Asian Research at Amnesty International. Although Sean MacBride was 74 years old. Stephanie Grant thought he could be very effective. I fully shared her view.
I knew Sean MacBride's history well. MacBride's father, Major John MacBride, was executed by firing squad after Ireland's Easter Uprising that took place in Dublin in 1916. He died alongside the Irish socialist leader, James Connolly. Sean MacBride was twelve years old when his father was executed by the British. His mother was the famed Irish actress and legendary beauty, Maud Gonne, over whom William Butler Yeats, broke his heart. She was known to others, as Yeats' Muse but she was always her own woman, and refused Yeats' entreaties to marry him.
At the age of 23, Sean MacBride became Director of Intelligence of the IRA. He ultimately became the Minister of External Affairs of an independent Ireland for which his father had fought and died. In that position during the 1950s Sean MacBride would play a critical role in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights that became the foundation stone for the European Court of Human Rights. In 1974 he received the Nobel Peace Prize as a man, who according to the Nobel Committee, "mobilised the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice." In 1975 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize.
When Sean MacBride met with us there were mass executions taking place in jails all around Bangladesh. It was a nightmarish situation. What I remember most clearly from that meeting was one very specific quality about Sean MacBride. He said almost nothing to begin with. He listened. I explained the political conditions in Bangladesh that framed the background and the context for the mass killing that was underway. I spoke about the Taher trial and the descent into a lawless state of military rule. I was struck by how completely focused MacBride was on what I was saying.
After twenty minutes of talking and answering his questions it was clear to me that Sean MacBride knew not only exactly what I was saying but also where I was going. He was now ahead of me. He asked: "What can I do?" I told him the only way I thought the killings could stop would be if he flew to Dhaka and met General Ziaur Rahman, the military strongman responsible for the ongoing executions. While he had the power to continue the mayhem, Zia also had the power to call it to a halt.
I explained why I thought this might work. But I thought to myself only in the hands of a seasoned master did the plan have a chance. Here was man who had been in and out of the IRA and in out of jails from the age of 18. This man knew what he was doing. Sean MacBride accepted the proposal. Within a day or so through legal contacts in Dhaka he quickly arranged an invitation for himself to speak to the Bar Association in Dhaka. He flew to Dhaka with Yvonne Terlingen. His decision to act without hesitation and to promptly leave for Bangladesh was in my view rooted in the searing experience of his own father's execution. He didn't need to be told anything about the pain of a relative being sent before a firing squad. He lived it as a child.
Within days Sean MacBride had met General Zia. As he would later tell me, he found Zia "unbalanced" and somewhat "deranged." Apparently, this was not surprising for a man running a programme of mass executions. MacBride asked Zia to stop the hangings and the firing squads. He recalled how Zia seemed to shudder slightly on hearing this request. He told Zia that he had the power to make that very important decision. Sean MacBride urged him to make an intelligent decision.
MacBride also told Zia that if he did not stop the executions he would return to London and condemn him before the world. Sean MacBride had spoken out on behalf of Bangladesh in 1971 as the Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists and his stature in Europe assured him a wide audience.
Even Zia recognised that as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, MacBride could make it very difficult for him in the future. Sean MacBride was not a man to cross. Indeed, after the first execution, Zia had placed himself "beyond the pale" of MacBride's moral universe. Still there was a risk for Zia were he to go up against MacBride.
Remarkably, the MacBride intervention worked. The executions stopped very soon after this meeting. During the winter and spring of 1978 nothing was certain. Sean MacBride's presence in my view brought this particular phase of the nightmare to a close.