Tales of the gallows, story of a princess | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 21, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, March 21, 2009

Tales of the gallows, story of a princess

Two books take Syed Badrul Ahsan's fancy


The assassination of President Ziaur Rahman remains a mystery, like so many other mysteries before or since, even now. Precisely who planned to bump him off or what his enemies planned to do once he was out of the way has never been known. In his years in power, General Zia lived a life of danger, in two ways. In the first place, he was a danger to many around him, seeing that each time a coup attempt against him collapsed, he swiftly went into retribution mode. In the second, having survived as many as eighteen known plots to overthrow (and possibly kill) him, he succumbed to the nineteenth in May 1981 in Chittagong.
Zia's killing was quickly followed by the miserable death of the alleged leader of what eventually would turn out to be an abortive coup. General M.A. Manzoor, unquestionably one of the more intellectually brilliant officers in the Bangladesh army (an earlier one was General Khaled Musharraf), was murdered soon after he was arrested in Chittagong. To this day, observers of the tragic events that followed Zia's killing wonder about the sinister force that was employed in dispatching Manzoor to his grave. Once he had taken control of Chittagong, Manzoor reportedly wished to speak to General Hussein Muhammad Ershad, the chief of army staff. Ershad, again reportedly, refused to respond. That is a significant part of the mystery. And mysterious too is the question of who ordered Manzoor's death and why no one has ever been brought to justice over his murder.
And Manzoor's inexplicable killing was not the end of the story. In the days and weeks that followed Zia's assassination, a clear pattern of hunting down the men allegedly involved in the conspiracy to kill the president emerged. In the end, it turned into a simple and yet macabre matter of thirteen army officers walking to the gallows on charges of conspiring to murder Zia and actually succeeding in the effort. Twelve of these officers were hanged by September 1981, after a secret trial before a tribunal headed by General Abdur Rahman. The thirteenth man was executed nearly two years later. No mercy was shown to the accused; their pleas were not heard and their professions of innocence were ignored in cavalier fashion. The senior most of the officers detained in connection with the plot to kill the president, Brigadier Mohsinuddin, did not know why he had been brought in. And similar was the story of the others.
And it is this story of how a different kind of plotting went into the question of resolving the issue of the Zia assassination that Julfikar Ali Manik reveals in this engrossing, often disturbing account. It was a farce of a trial, seeing that the judgement to be delivered had already been arrived at by those connected to the tribunal as well as those directing them from behind the scenes. The court martial of the officers was decreed by General Ershad through a 'convening order' on 4 July 1981. Seven military officers were appointed judges at the court, which was headed by General Abdur Rahman. With Major A.K.M. Bazlur Rahman as judge advocate, the court had three prosecutors --- Brigadier (later major general) Nazirul Aziz Chishti, Col. A.M.S.A. Amin (subsequently a major general and ambassador for Bangladesh abroad) and Lt. Col. (later brigadier) Abu Nayeem Amin Ahmed. To represent the officers accused of murdering General Zia, three 'defending officers', namely, Brigadier M. Anwar Hossain, Col. (later major general) Mohammad Ainuddin, Bir Protik, and Lt. Col. (later major general) Syed Muhammad Ibrahim, Bir Protik, were appointed.
The court martial commenced inside a section of Chiitagong jail on 10 July 1981 and went on till 26 July 1981. All the accused officers, having already been subjected to rigorous torture in custody, were made to sit handcuffed on a bench surrounded by a grill that looked more like a cage. Absolute security measures were taken around the prison, with even anti-aircraft guns being positioned to ensure total secrecy. In more ways than one, it was reminiscent of the harsh secrecy that had gone into the trial of Col. Abu Taher during the period of the Zia military dictatorship in July 1976. The Zia murder trial was, therefore, a questionable affair from every aspect. The authorities had, by the time the court martial went under way, obtained 'confessions' from the accused. Once the trial began, however, the detained military officers made it known that their statements had been obtained from them under duress. Brigadier Mohsinuddin, a freedom fighter, wanted to show the court the wounds he had received from the severe torture inflicted on him by intelligence forces and other army personnel. The court ignored his plea. Col. Mahfuz, another freedom fighter, was left without any fingernails as a result of torture. All the accused, before they were brought to trial, were regularly beaten with rods and parts of their bodies were scarred with burning cigarettes. Not even their genitals were spared.
The litany of cruel behaviour goes on. Intriguingly, when news of Zia's murder came in, it was given out on behalf of the army chief of staff that those officers who had fled Chittagong but would surrender by 1 June would be pardoned. A large number of officers did respond to that appeal. Within days, though, some of these officers were taken into custody. When the defending officers pointed out the duplicity involved in the matter of promising amnesty to the officers and then arresting them, the court told counsel with a straight face that there had been no such announcement. When Syed Muhammad Ibrahim offered to present the taped version of the amnesty announcement carried by radio and television, the court played a trick. Only custodians of radio and television, in the words of the court, could come forth with the tapes. And then farce came in. When the defending officers appealed to the court to summon the relevant officials from radio and television, the presiding military judges paid no heed. And then, suddenly, the court was adjourned, on 26 July. Over the next few days, sentences of death were announced and the accused, in various states of physical torture, were transported to different prisons across the country. They would be hanged.
Manik's work, which includes a detailed interview of General Ainuddin, makes heart-breaking reading. And do not forget that the men who presided over the trial and executions of the thirteen military officers were repatriates from Pakistan in the years after Bangladesh's successful War of Liberation.
Benazir Bhutto's was a life lived in struggle, wallowing in misery and ending in sudden death. Shyam Bhatia, an old friend of hers from their days as students at Oxford, brings into this narrative touching glimpses of a woman who quite did not have the opportunity of going through a normal adult life. Her early ambition, in the days when her father presided over Pakistan's fortunes, was to be part of her country's foreign service someday. That was the impression she gave newsmen in Simla, where she accompanied Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on his critical trip for talks with Indira Gandhi in 1972.
It was an ambition soon to be overtaken by events, precipitated of course by the increasingly harsh rule of her father. But then, Benazir never for a moment, as long as she lived, believed that her father could do any wrong. A glaring instance of her near-blind idea of Z.A. Bhutto as a truly heroic figure for her came early on in her Daughter of the East, where she notes her conviction that her father's missives to her on the Bangladesh situation in 1971 were more credible than what the global community was trying to project. Those who remember her from her days as a student abroad (and among them Bhatia is one) recall with clarity the feistiness with which she defended Pakistan and the deliberate way in which she ignored the genocide of the Bengalis.
What is appealing about Shyam Bhatia's observations of Benazir Bhutto is that it comes without fawning and at the same time without bitterness. Detachment is all. There are moments, and they come in aplenty, where Bhatia makes it clear that he and Benazir disagreed on many of the issues they tended to reflect on. He also makes it a point to give readers the impression that despite their differences they could still sit down and have a decent conversation. How else does one explain the closeness that developed between the two despite the role Bhatia played in the early 1970s to have Oxford University desist from conferring an honorary degree on Z.A. Bhutto? Benazir was furious, but in time she got over it, enough to have Bhatia in her later years in exile in Dubai and London drop by for dinner and quiet chats.
Goodbye Shahzadi is not a run-of-the-mill work you come across about politicians anywhere. It bores into Benazir the woman, the restless student looking for excitement at Oxford and Harvard. She is suave, the very model of sophistication among her friends, a modern Pakistani. And yet, back home in Larkana on home visits, she swiftly dwindles into being the insensitive female member of a traditional feudal clan. As a friend from her days at Lady Margaret Hall recounted to Bhatia in 1974 (and she had been to the Bhutto home in Larkana with Benazir), 'I'm never going back there. When Pinkie loses her temper . . . she throws ashtrays like flying saucers at the servants.' And then came the self-satisfying. At Simla, thought the young Benazir, Indira Gandhi did not like all that 'free and favourable publicity I was getting in the Indian press.' At Oxford, as Bhatia tells us, Benazir fell 'madly in love with two extremely handsome Pakistanis.' Inquiries about the possibility of marriage with any one of them were made on her behalf. She ended up being rebuffed. Asif Zardari, says Bhatia, 'came a very poor third in the scale of her lifetime's needs and desires.'
Benazir was a lonely woman in exile. She was hounded by Nawaz Sharif and then by Pervez Musharraf. She had suffered solitary confinement in the dark years of Ziaul Huq. When she managed to scrape an electoral victory in 1988, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and army chief Aslam Beg did all they could to prevent her from taking office as prime minister. Within two years, she was dismissed from office. She came back in 1993. Her brother Murtaza died in a hail of bullets before his Karachi home and she was unable to resolve the mystery of the killing. And then it was her handpicked president, Farooq Leghari, who threw her out. He was piqued that she would not act against her corrupt husband.
And that expensive necklace she was alleged to have purchased with corrupt money from London's fashionable Knightsbridge? Benazir's response was poor, unconvincing. She told Bhatia that all the fuss around it reminded her of Marie Antoinette, of the seeming helplessness of the eventually hapless empress of France.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.

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