The murder of Major General Abul Manzur, Bir Uttam
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
On June 2, 1981, General Abul Manzur, the Commandant of the Chittagong Cantonment, was killed under mysterious circumstances while in army custody inside the Cantonment. Manzur had distinguished himself as a Sector Commander during Bangladesh's Liberation War and been the recipient of the highest honor conveyed upon combatants of the war. He was among those honored few, who earned the distinction of Bir Uttam,
Among those who knew him, Manzur was considered a highly capable and intelligent officer. Yet, in the chaotic days after General Ziaur Rahman's death on a visit to Chittagong, Manzur was accused by General Ershad, the Chief of Army Staff, and his closest companions of having organized an attempted coup against Ziaur Rahman which resulted in Ziaur Rahman's assassination at the Circuit House in Chittagong during the early morning hours of May 30th.
From the outset there was widespread skepticism of the narrative the Army High Command began disseminating. For those of us who had painstakingly investigated the coup against President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other political murders, the well-packaged claims advanced by the Chief of Army Staff, General Ershad, and his inner circle had an air of familiar deceit designed to advance a much more complex agenda. Any intelligent observer understood that the first requirement needed in approaching the unsteady “truths” of the “Official Story” was to adhere, in this situation, to the fundamental and guiding principle of skepticism.
The first clue of a “false narrative” was the well-crafted, simple and coherent story that the Army Command presented on the first day regarding what had happened in Chittagong. This was out on the airways twelve hours after Zia's death. This narrative alleged that General Manzur had in an attempt to seize power staged a coup and as a first step organized the killing of General Zia.
Yet, the news from Chittagong itself was very confused. If Manzur had planned a coup in which the intent was to kill Zia and take power, then he did not seem to be able to lay out a very coherent picture of what his own goals were. Those who lived through these events in Chittagong and met Manzur during this period, recall the disarray and confusion that made it quite clear to them that Manzur was himself struggling to understand what had happened and what was going on. He was playing for time to get his bearings. This wasn't the demeanor of a man who had carefully worked through all the details and contingencies of a coup d'etat.
In Bangladesh, people are familiar with how a real coup is staged. In August 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered along with most of his family, and those who came to power with bloody hands had their “story” to tell. It held together for quite awhile. Of course, in time the “narrative” fell apart. The “working draft” of how the “six majors” had “done it all” ultimately crumbled as the complexity of the coup involving months of prior planning and wide ranging contacts which included links to elements in the U.S. Embassy slowly emerged from the shadow world.
It was a fascinating tale of an American Ambassador ordering his own Embassy personnel to break all contact with the coup makers months before the coup but realizing after the coup that he had utterly failed to keep his own intelligence personnel “out of it”. They had bosses elsewhere. It took a good deal of work to get to the bottom of that story. (See “The Past Is Never Dead: The Long Shadow of the August 1975 Coup” by Lawrence Lifschultz, The Daily Star, 15 August 2005)
Although I was living in Cambridge, England that year, on May 30, 1981, the day Zia was killed in Chittagong, I was in India visiting friends in Bihar. Upon hearing the news I headed for Calcutta and within three days I crossed the border at Benepole on my way to Dhaka.
In the course of a week in Dhaka I gathered a significant amount of information. By the end of that week I had been picked up by the Dhaka police and deported from Bangladesh. In those days certain foreign journalists were not welcome. I was already on a “black list” for a recent book I had published in London on the Mujib coup and the events surrounding Colonel Abu Taher's execution.
Despite these difficulties I filed the following report in the Far Eastern Economic Review. It appeared on July 10, 1981 with a Dhaka dateline:
“The prevalent version circulating in Dacca of what happened in Chittagong now differs substantially from the first interpretations made when the rebellion was on. Senior Bangladeshi army sources have told leading Bengali journalists that there is grave doubt about whether Manzur actually initiated and led the Chittagong revolt. According to these army sources, on the morning of May 30, immediately after Zia was killed, Manzur telephoned army headquarters and civilian officials in Dacca, declaring that he was not involved in Zia's killing and that what had happened had been done behind his back. He was quoted as saying that he was not yet in control of events in Chittagong and was attempting to regain command of the situation…
Although much information remains to be confirmed, army sources claim that Manzur's appeal for negotiations and a peaceful resolution of the crisis to prevent a civil war, was rejected by the first evening, and Dacca Radio, under orders from Ershad, began to broadcast a barrage of denunciations of Manzur as an 'assassin' and 'traitor'. Manzur at that stage is reported to have prepared for confrontation . . . believing his enemies in the Dacca garrison, particularly Ershad and Major General Mohabat Jan Choudhury of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), were out to use Zia's death to finish him off at all costs.
. . . Reflecting widespread skepticism, Mohiuddin Ahmed, the deputy leader of the opposition in the Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament), on June 21, asked government officials to issue a clear statement describing how Manzur was killed while in custody. Referring to contradictory announcements made by the authorities, in addition to later statements made by police officials to independent newspapers which were at variance with descriptions issued by the government's official spokesman, Ahmed demanded to know how Manzur could have been termed the assassin [of Ziaur Rahman] before a trial could be held.” (“Confusion Over A Killing” by Lawrence Lifschultz, Far Eastern Economic Review, July 10, 1981)
In February 1995, fourteen years after Manzur's death, his brother, Abul Manzur Ahmed accused General H.M Ershad and his associates of organizing the murder of General Abul Manzur, Commandant of the Chittagong Cantonment, Bir Uttam, a distinguished soldier who fought for the independence of a democratic Bangladesh. By that time, General Ershad, who sat out the Liberation War in Pakistan while others fought and died, had fallen from power after a decade of military dictatorship. It finally seemed safe for Manzur's brother to file the murder case without risking his life in the process.
Now, nearly two decades after Manzur's brother accused General Ershad, the “Manzur Murder Case” has begun to make headlines. One week before Sessions Judge Hosne Ara Akhter was scheduled on February 10th to pronounce judgment in the case, she was abruptly replaced. A new judge, Khandokar Hasan Muhammad Firoz, has been appointed in her place. No one yet knows what this sudden change signifies.
Nevertheless, there is a question that must be asked. Would justice have been truly served had Judge Akter pronounced a verdict on February 10th? After nineteen years of a meandering and anemic prosecution there are grave doubts that a meaningful verdict would have been rendered by the trial court, if the judge decided to take the last step and pronounce judgment. Indeed, even at the eleventh hour, there were compelling reasons for the Judge to hold back from doing so that justice still might be served.
In November 2013 Judge Akhter openly criticized the Public Prosecutor, Ahaduzzaman Khan Rochi, for his abysmal lack of preparation. Was the serial incompetence of Mr. Rochi and a number of his predecessors, one of design or simply an inherent problem of competence? Another Public Prosecutor, Abul Kashem Khan, told the press on February 2nd that judges have been changed at least twenty-two times since the trial began in August 1995.
Normally, in cases of complex litigation a single judge is assigned to master the complexity of a case and move it forward with some degree of certitude. This is the gold standard throughout the world. But, clearly nothing even remotely approaching this standard has been the practice in the Manzur Murder Case. The case became a wandering orphan kicked from one judge to another and one prosecutor to another. Yet, the Manzur case matters. It has an important significance for Bangladesh's history.
With the appointment of Judge Firoz it remains unclear whether the Manzur family will ever find justice in the courts of Bangladesh. Remarkably, Colonel Taher's family did after 35 years. Unlike Ershad, but like Zia, Manzur and Taher, were both recipients of the Bir Uttam medal-of-honor. Similarly, they were both Sector Commanders, who along with Colonel Muhammed Ziauddin, escaped from Pakistan to fight in the Liberation War alongside General Zia. Remarkably, Ershad, the repatriate officer who sat out the war in Pakistan, would be implicated in each of their deaths.
General Ershad's lawyers claim that not a single witness has linked him or any of his close associates to General Manzur's murder and therefore he should be exonerated from charges that claim he played a key role in the killing of General Manzur, or as some have termed it, the premeditated and planned “assassination” of Manzur.
Perhaps, General Ershad was the beneficiary of that old police tactic of rounding up “the usual suspects” while ignoring the real ones. However, one cannot even make that claim because in 33 years not a single suspect has been arrested for Manzur's murder.
Ziauddin Choudhury, the former Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong in his important and thoughtful book on the 1981 events has termed Manzur's death on June 1, 1981, “the second assassination” that took place in Chittagong. The “first” assassination was that of Ziaur Rahman on May 30th. Mr. Choudhury belongs to a rare breed. He is someone who asks serious questions and looks hard for the answers.
It is Choudhury's view that both men, Zia and Manzur, were assassinated. He is one of the very few individuals who has taken the time and made the effort to systematically investigate what happened in Chittagong during those fateful days in 1981. As Deputy Commissioner in Chittagong and someone who knew both Ziaur Rahman and Abul Manzur, his vantage point was unique.
Despite his book having been published in 2009, Ziauddin Choudhury confirmed in a recent interview with this writer that no one from the Public Prosecutor's office, nor investigators working with the Prosecutor, have ever contacted him to discuss important evidence that is presented in his book, “The Assassination of Ziaur Rahman & It's Aftermath”.
Similarly, several years ago I had the privilege of sitting for two days in Dhaka with Major General Moinul Hussain Choudhury while together the two of us meticulously worked to reconstruct the events surrounding Manzur's death. General Moin and I had known each other for thirty years. In the mid-1970s Moin was posted as the Bangladesh military attaché in London, and I was on a sabbatical from journalism, pursuing graduate studies at Cambridge University. He once told me it was his job to keep an eye on me. I told him the feeling was mutual. In this pursuit we met fairly frequently for dinner.
A decade ago, General Moin published a book in Bangla entitled Silent Witness. In 2006 as we sat together I asked him to carefully take me through all the details he had written in specific sections of his book. Unfortunately, I do not read Bangla. As in years past, Moin and I were both interested in learning from one another. Since I didn't know when I might be able to secure a translation of his book, we spent many hours during those two days going through what he knew about the events in Chittagong and about Manzur's murder.
When I finally departed with pages of notes, Moin told me he would arrange an English translation and send it to me. It arrived before his untimely death in 2010. As I now read through the translation of Moin's work for the tenth time, I feel a responsibility to convey to a wider audience Moin's detailed knowledge of the events that took place in Chittagong. He had a unique vantage point. As Adjutant General of the Bangladesh Army, he was posted at Army Headquarters.
In his book, Ziauddin Choudhury, makes an important observation, when he states: “In the forty eight hours that followed Zia's assassination, Manzur had spent perhaps two thirds of the time speaking with his interlocutors in Dhaka, who were reportedly senior army officers. Manzur's removal from the scene guaranteed that we would never learn who his interlocutors were on the phone, and what he was negotiating.”
Ziauddin Choudhury will not have to regret this point any longer. We now know exactly who Major General Manzur was speaking to at Army Headquarters during those fateful days. It was Major General Moin Choudhury who Manzur trusted. Moin was the only General at Army Headquarters during this period who had participated in the Liberation War.
Moin and Manzur knew one another and respected each other. They had been comrades during the Liberation War and for both of them that mattered a great deal. They had fought the Pakistan Army while General Ershad and General Mohabat Jan Choudhury had remained part of it. Yet, ten years after Liberation from the murderous oppression of the Pakistan Army, the “Vichy of Bangladesh” were somehow now on the verge of taking complete command of the Bangladesh Army and ruthlessly eliminating all opposition to their hegemony. The story of this transformation represents a saga all its own.
Moin in his conversations with me made clear that he was the key senior officer at Army Headquarters in Dhaka who Manzur called and spoke to in the hope of heading off a military confrontation in Chittagong. In these discussions Manzur made clear to Moin that he had nothing to do with Zia's killing. Moin has written about these conversations in his book, Silent Witness.
Moin's writing is a gold mine of information for readers with a discerning eye. It is especially revealing with respect to General Manzur's death and how Manzur was falsely accused and deliberately slandered by General Ershad and his associates.
Moin presents the most detailed account in print of how Zia was killed and demonstrates convincingly that Manzur had nothing to do with Zia's demise. Moin presents a compelling account of these events. Most importantly he makes comprehensible the reason Manzur's accusers sought to assassinate him rather than allow Manzur to defend himself in a court of law. Manzur's accusers did not just jump to a sudden conclusion twelve hours after Zia's death. They launched, with clear intent, a well-organized and well-prepared disinformation campaign.
Ziauddin Choudhury, then the Deputy Commissioner of Chittagong, was one of the first government officials to reach the Circuit House and see Ziaur Rahman's body. Choudhury would spend the next several days trying to understand who had done what to whom and why, but it would ultimately take weeks and months for him to work out the essential outlines of a reasonable picture. Ultimately, Choudhury expressed his discomfort with the “official story” being put out by the Army.
Yet, at Army Headquarters, just a few hours after learning of Zia's death, Ershad was arguing with Moin claiming that he (Ershad) knew exactly what had happened hundreds of miles away in Chittagong. Moin described this confrontation between the two men in his book:
“From my telephone conversation with Manzur on May 30th from Army Headquarters after hearing of Zia's assassination, I was convinced that Manzur was not involved with the assassination. I gave my impression to Ershad, the Army Chief, the PSOs and my colleagues. They tried to convince me by various arguments that the assassination was perpetrated under Manzur's leadership. In great haste, Manzur was implicated in the killing and the entire publicity machinery was geared to publicizing this accusation. I gave my opinion that it was not fair to broadcast this over the radio and TV without an investigation.”
The above quote is taken from a chapter entitled “Background To Zia's Assassination”. At the end of that chapter, Moin indicates clearly that he realized the whole game was a set-up to eliminate Manzur. Moin states at the end of the chapter: “Manzur was murdered at the direct instigation of a few power hungry ruthlessly ambitious, scheming, and non-Freedom Fighter officers. It was an elaborate scheme.”
Indeed, as Moin realized it was a very “elaborate scheme”. One of the most essential elements of the scheme was the rapid propagation by Ershad and his associates of their “false narrative”.
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 TOMORROW)