Trial targeted freedom fighter officers | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 29, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Trial targeted freedom fighter officers

Trial targeted freedom fighter officers

President Ziaur Rahman was assassinated in Chittagong on May 30, 1981. Two days later, General Manzur was murdered. Facts related to the planned killing of Manzur show how top military leaders at the time desperately tried to bury the truth behind the Zia killing and how it helped them seize power. Manzur was the unsuspecting victim of their duplicity, which has become evident from the depositions of witnesses and the accused and from some authoritative books on the killing.
All these years since June 1981, justice for Manzur and his family has remained elusive.

 

 

As adjutant general of the Bangladesh Army, Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury was empowered to supervise overall the court martial against those accused in the Ziaur Rahman assassination and mutiny.
But he was neither informed nor involved in this process. This was a gross violation of the Army Act, which had authorised him to look into matters relating to discipline, court of inquiry and court martial in the army.
General Moin had earlier refused to sign the office order for the formation of the army's court of inquiry into the assassination. He refused to do so as his proposal to unearth the reasons behind the mutiny by the officers was not included in the terms of reference of the court of inquiry.
Ershad, however, gave short shrift to Moin's refusal and signed the order himself.
For this, Moin, a veteran freedom fighter, had to face unpleasant consequences. He was kept under intelligence surveillance round the clock. His phone was continuously tapped.
Annoyed by such surveillance, Moin informed army chief Ershad and DGFI chief Mohabbat Jan Chowdhury about it. But he got no remedy. Both Ershad and Mohabbat Jan expressed their ignorance about it. Moin could not believe that they were unaware of the circumstances.
Thus, keeping the adjutant general away, the army authorities completed all the formalities related to the court martial. A seven-member field general court martial, led by Major General Abdur Rahman, who had been repatriated from Pakistan, was set up. Majority of the members of the court were repatriated officers.
The home ministry asked the then deputy commissioner of Chittagong, Ziauddin M Chowdhury, to prepare rooms in the Chittagong district jail to accommodate the court.
The home ministry's order surprised the deputy commissioner, who thought it was an unusual arrangement. A court martial is always held in the cantonment.
In this case, the army requested this unique arrangement as the arrested army officers were being kept in the district jail. The Chittagong civil administration made the arrangements in line with the demands of the army.
The field general court martial got underway on July 10, 1981 to try 33 army officers charged with the assassination of Zia and staging a mutiny on May 30, 1981. They had already been charged with the offences by a stage-managed court of inquiry dominated by officers earlier repatriated from Pakistan.  
The army headquarters, dominated by officers, including army chief Ershad, repatriated from Pakistan after the country's Liberation War was over, constituted the field general court martial in a pre-planned way to punish the accused. The field general court martial was empowered with jurisdiction wider than that exercised by a general court martial.
In a general court martial, the accused are entitled to better treatment in spite of the grave nature of the offences. The court is also larger, the aim being to ensure a fair trial for the accused. All rights of the accused, under the military law, are to be ensured. The accused will be able to exercise them to their fullest advantage.
But in the field general court martial formed in 1981, the provision of rule 35 of the army rules was disregarded and no accused person was given the opportunity to raise any objection to having any member of the court adjudicate his case.
In this trial, three senior officers -- one brigadier and two lieutenant colonels --were the prosecutors. They had been repatriated from Pakistan.  
Three defending officers were appointed for the accused individuals. The selection did not reflect the individual choices of the accused.  
Of the three officers appointed to defend the accused, a brigadier was repatriated from Pakistan, while a colonel and a lieutenant colonel were freedom fighters.
Relatives of Brigadier General Mohsin Uddin Ahmed, who was facing court martial, applied to the field court martial seeking permission to engage advocate Gaziul Haq to defend Mohsin before the court.
Relatives of Col MA Rashid and Major Dost Mohammad also sought permission to engage advocate Aminul Haq to defend them before the court. Aminul Haq had even visited Chittagong and met the authorities concerned.
But their applications were rejected, though military laws allow civilian lawyers to defend accused individuals before a court martial.  
Several other provisions of the army rules were violated as well.
The trial was completed in a hurry in only 17 days, beginning from July 10. The court awarded death penalty to 12 officers and various terms of jail sentences to 14 others. The remaining defendants, though acquitted, were dismissed from service.  
Lt Col Fazle Hossain, who was ill during the first court martial, was later tried by another field general court martial led by Brigadier Mofizur Rahman, another repatriated officer.
The most important finding of the camera trial was holding General Manzur responsible for masterminding the rebellion and assassination of President Zia.  Manzur was labelled posthumously the leader of the failed rebellion by the field general court martial, led by Gen Abdur Rahman.
None of the convicted officers was allowed to file appeals against their convictions owing to stringent legal provisions. The Army Act did not provide for any appeal against the decision of the court martial.
On the grounds of illegality and miscarriage of justice, a writ petition, however, was filed with the High Court challenging the decision of the court martial.
But the HC rejected the petition on the ground that the writ jurisdiction of it was excluded by sub-clause 5 of Article 102 of the Constitution. This sub-clause overrode the HC's jurisdiction to exercise authority on the application of any person aggrieved by the action of a military court.
The matter was taken to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court which had held the same views as the HC.
Finally, the fateful night came on September 23, 1981. The officers were hanged in different prisons.
The trials were part of organised efforts to eliminate freedom fighters in the army. These efforts were led by officers who had been repatriated from Pakistan after the emergence of Bangladesh.  
Considering the nature of the trials and the convictions, many say the trials had targeted the freedom fighters. The court martial trial convicted 22 officers altogether, none of whom was repatriated. All took an active and leading part in the war of 1971. Nearly all the 12 officers who were hanged in September 1981 were active freedom fighters and at least five of them were decorated war heroes.
In all, 33 officers were accused in the trial, but none among them was a repatriated officer. Even the repatriated officers who worked closely with Manzur were spared, even though the army's court of inquiry had found the involvement of some repatriated officers in the mutiny.
On completion of the trials, the white paper prepared by the army also put the blame on Gen Manzur for assembling so many freedom fighter officers in Chittagong and Parbatya Chittgong areas. But being the GOC, Manzur had little to do regarding this situation. The freedom fighter officers had been transferred by the army headquarters to the Chittagong region.  It was a clever move to remove freedom fighter officers from important posts at then army headquarters. Ershad had made these moves to give postings to officers he liked.   
Following the trials, a massive screening was conducted through forming a screening board, again dominated by officers repatriated from Pakistan. Around 100 officers were sent into forced retirement, accused of indirect involvement in or having knowledge of the assassination of Zia. But they had nothing to do with the mutiny. Yet it was done only to eliminate freedom fighter officers from the army.
[The report been prepared on the basis of the books, "Silent Witness of a General" by Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, "Assassination of Ziaur Rahman and the Aftermath" by Ziauddin M Chowdhury, "Democracy and the Challenges of Development" by Moudud Ahmed and "Zia and Manzur murder and the aftermath" edited by ASM Shamsul Arefin.]

 

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