Abu Taher and the Supreme Court of Bangladesh
WHAT actually happened during the so-called "revolt" of 1977 remains an open question more than thirty years later. It has been argued to me that there was never an actual revolt at all but a "bait and kill" intelligence operation meant to flush out Zia's enemies within the armed forces. The net in clumsy hands was cast widely. What is certain is that a great many men were executed in violation of all legal procedures that ought to have guaranteed them due process under the country's military code of justice.
In 2006, I attended a dinner in Dhaka with the late Major-General Moinul Chowdhury. Two prominent journalists and a retired military colleague of General Moin were also present. I knew Moin when he was the military attaché in London during the mid-1970s. Occasionally, we use to dine together. He told me it was his job to keep on an eye on me. I told him the feeling was mutual. But, mostly he asked me for suggestions of books to read on politics and history. I became a lending library of sorts.
The conversation that evening in 2006 turned to the events of 1977. Moin had returned from London at Zia's request and had become Adjutant General in the army. It was not a wise choice.
He told us that evening that he had been involved in authorising over 200 executions but he did not know the actual number of soldiers who were executed. He estimated the total to have been in the hundreds. Moin did acknowledge that evening that none of the men were given a fair trial. The soldiers had a right to legal counsel. They were denied this. The soldiers also had a right to appeal against death sentences. This they were also denied. He appeared to regret his role in these events.
A few days after the dinner, I rang Moin up and went to see him at his residence in Dhaka. We spoke in much greater detail. I left having no doubt that he regretted his actions as Adjutant General during the mayhem of 1977 and 1978. He elaborated on what he had told us at dinner.
Here was the army's former Adjutant General, explaining that virtually every soldier who was hanged or killed by firing squad had been denied his rights under the military code of justice. He had no control over these extra-judicial killings. General Zia was in command. Moin said Zia did as he pleased.
I believe if a Truth and Justice Commission had been established General Moin might have been willing to appear before it, and give evidence about this dark chapter in Bangladesh's history. In my opinion, he would have frankly admitted his role and expressed his regret.
There are few writers in Bangladesh who have addressed this chapter of Bangladesh's history. Ataus Samad was to my knowledge the first person to write on the mass executions. The most detailed reporting has been carried out by Zayadul Ahsan Pintu who published his first reports in Bhorer Kagoj in October 1997. Ahsan's reports in Bhorer Kagoj appeared twenty years after the events. He expanded his research in his book, The Enigma of A Coup: The Noose Over The Soldiers.
Zayadul Ahsan travelled across the country and collected lists of military personnel who were executed at various jails. He met and interviewed many senior military officers who were in command during this period but none knew the actual total of those executed. As expected, in many instances there seemed to be a deliberate and obvious effort to hide the truth. Elsewhere there emerged obvious inconsistencies between those directly involved and lists that were subsequently produced.
For example, an executioner at Comilla Jail claimed to Ahsan that he had hanged 93 soldiers at Comilla, but the jail claimed it had no record. According to Ahsan, an ISPR handout dated October 26, 1977 states that 55 soldiers were hanged in connection with "the Bogra mutiny" but the Bogra Jail had only 16 names listed of soldiers who were executed. Ahsan was told the rest were executed in Rajshahi Central Jail but in Rajshahi they claimed there were no documents.
According to Ahsan, in 1977 over two thousand soldiers were "tried" between October 7 and October 26. Many of the trials supposedly began on October 7 and executions began on October 9. Within two days these men were supposed to defend themselves. Yet, Ahsan reports, as Moin had told us, that General Zia issued new regulations on October 7 that denied the accused a right to a lawyer to prepare his defence or to lodge an appeal against a sentence of death. This violated the due process provision of the military's judicial code.
Essentially, no properly constituted tribunals actually functioned during this period that might be regarded as having a valid legal basis under military regulations. The closest Ahsan could get to what might be considered a baseline estimate of all the military personnel who were executed during the 1977-78 period came from General Mir Showkat Ali, who commanded Dhaka's 9th Division. Showkat told Ahsan that 1,130 military personnel had been executed. What is the real number? No one knows. Ahsan believes that hundreds of soldiers were executed by firing squads with no records being kept. Some or none may have been included in Showkat's figure.
If the Abu Taher case was declared by the Bangladesh Supreme Court to have been "a hoax, a sham and a fiction," then what was this?
Perhaps, M.K. Anwar or Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir can educate us. Will they say that this government hired The Sunday Times, The Washington Post, The Economic & Political Weekly, Amnesty International, Sean MacBride and Lawrence Lifschultz to disparage General Ziaur Rahman?
Will Anwar and Alamgir allege that the State Department official who as a matter of conscience leaked an internal US government document to The Washington Post for an article entitled "Bangladesh Executions: A Discrepancy" (February 10, 1978) was nothing but a paid agent of someone or some organisation back in 1978?
The problem is that this entire chronology does not work very well for Anwar's and Alamgir's accusatory framework. Why? Because all these facts about the mass executions carried out during Ziaur Rahman's regime were published in 1977/78. How precisely, Mr. Alamgir, were all these people, over 30 years ago, organised to disparage General Zia?
Is the powerful documentary "Blood Bath in the Bangladesh Military," directed by Anwar Kabir, also fabricated in the opinion of Anwar and Alamgir? Kabir had interviewed the families of soldiers who disappeared in the "great storm" of executions. The families still do not know what happened to their sons, brothers and husbands.
Will Anwar and Alamgir say that General Showkat Ali lied to Zayadul Ahsan Pintu? Will they say General Moinul Chowdhury misled those of us who met with him in 2006? Where does it end?
The truth is that it ends with the facts. Ziaur Rahman by his own actions succeeded in disparaging his own legacy more than anyone else ever could. He bears on his own shoulders responsibility for these actions. All the evidence indicates that Zia directed one of the most egregious and brutal violations of human rights in modern South Asian history.
When the Supreme Court asked in open session about my views on Ziaur Rahman, I replied that I regarded him as a "complicated" man. I still hold to that opinion. There is much more to be understood about his role in Bangladesh's history. However, I don't believe much of what is still to be understood will fit only into the gilded volumes of his hagiographers.
The moral importance of Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail is relevant in this context. None of us should turn our backs on the injustice that occurred during this period when mass executions were carried out.
The current government should conduct a survey among families of the "missing" to determine who died and where their mortal remains were laid to rest. When Bhorer Kagoj published Zayadul Ahsan Pintu's articles in October 1997 about the mass executions families turned up at the newspaper to express gratitude that someone had finally paid attention to their sorrow. Many wept in the newspaper's editorial offices.
Retired army personnel with first-hand knowledge of these events should be asked to step forward and share what information they have. The families should be compensated in an appropriate way for their relatives who "disappeared."
In my view, the establishment of an independent Truth and Justice Commission is long overdue. Such a Commission should be established and funded to investigate these disappearances and many unsolved killings that still have not been resolved. The experience of Argentina, South Africa and East Timor are valuable examples to be studied.
The writer was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong).
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