Thirty-five years ago today a man who many of us knew, respected and admired was executed at Dhaka Central Jail. As in years past we have gathered—some for the first time and others who have previously attended memorials—so that we can remember Abu Taher, his principles and how the rule of law was turned into a set of arbitrary and ad hoc procedures by a regime determined to rule by criminal methods.
Yet, this year we commemorate not only the anniversary of Taher’s death but also the fulfillment of a life long goal held by a determined group of people. Their purpose was to pursue justice, in the elusive hope that one day, justice could be achieved. We all live with dreams and hopes. It is truly a rare day when the “dream of justice” is realized in a way that one thought was simply beyond reach.
This year on March 22, 2011 such a dream became a reality. It was an historic moment for the country and a highly emotional one for Taher’s family who never thought this day would come. In my view, what happened also has great significance for Bangladesh as a society. In a world and a society filled with injustice a step towards justice is a step towards hope..
It is rare in any country when the highest court in the land takes a stand commensurate with the principles that it is actually expected to uphold. So often do the Courts fail us, given the threats and constant political pressures, designed to subvert justice at every turn.
This time was different. The Supreme Court bench with responsibility for reviewing the Taher case, under the guidance of Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury and Justice Zakir Hossain, declared Abu Taher’s trial illegal and unconstitutional. Justice Chowdhury observed that the so-called Special Military Tribunal No. 1 and the trial it purported to hold inside Dhaka Central Jail was not in accord with any law in existence.
It was a lawless procedure held not in a Court but in jail with the newspapers of this country forbidden to mention one word about the proceedings. The one editor, Anwar Hossain Manju of Ittefaq who published a brief mention of Taher’s trial was immediately threatened with dire consequences if one more word on the case appeared in his newspaper.
Indeed, Abu Taher in his statement to the Tribunal in July 1976 was prescient when he stated: “The ordinance promulgated on 15th June 1976 is a black law. It was promulgated merely to suit the designs of the government. The ordinance is illegal. So, this tribunal ceases to have any right legally or morally to try me…The act of this Tribunal has put to shame what good things human civilization achieved through constant endeavor from the beginning of time until today.”
Thirty-five years later the Supreme Court of Bangladesh agreed with Taher. The Court declared Taher’s trial and that of his colleagues to have been “a hoax, a sham and a fiction.” The sentence passed by the “fake tribunal” was “set aside and quashed…as if…such a farcical trial never took place.”
The Court described Taher as a martyr and patriot. It also said that General Ziaur Rahman would have faced a “murder trial’ for Taher’s death were he alive today. The Court went further and declared, “The so-called trial and execution of Colonel Abu Taher was a cold blooded assassination which was masterminded by a person no other than Ziaur Rahman.”
Several days before the Supreme Court’s verdict I sat in the Court and listened to Shahdeen Malik, the attorney for Taher’s family, recount the events of July 1976. He described a time when it was hard to believe how low Bangladeshi society had sunk. It was a country where assassinations were followed by secret military tribunals with pre-determined death sentences.
And soon, thereafter, mass executions would take hold of the country in the autumn of 1977 without even the pretense of special military tribunals being staged in the jails. Instead, in violation of all lawful military procedures soldiers and airmen were forcibly taken in groups to the gallows or lined up in front of firing squads.
Shaheen Malik eloquently called upon the Court to rescue the “rule of law” by overturning Taher’s verdict as a logical consequence of the Court’s earlier decisions in the 5th and 7th amendment cases. On March 22nd of this year, Justice Chowdhury and Justice Hossain, showed great courage, and rescued the “rule of law”. By doing so they have profoundly assisted Bangladeshi society to return to that path of modern civilization which Taher referred to in his own statement.
Taher noted that Zia’s “Special Military Tribunal No. 1” had “put to shame what good things human civilization had achieved through constant endeavor.” By denouncing Zia’s Tribunal as unlawful and criminal, the Supreme Court has taken a major step in undoing the shame this country has lived with for the crime its Generals committed 35 years ago. Justices Chowdhury and Hossain are to be commended. Their great task, however, remains unfinished.
The injustice done to Abu Taher has been remedied to the degree it could. Even this much was a dream until March 22nd. It is very difficult to truly correct a crime that has happened in the past. Whatever is done, will always be, insufficient. A life can never be brought back. There is no way “to set right” the experience of three small children growing up without the daily presence of their father or a young woman losing her husband in the prime of life. In matters of the heart like this there can be no repair adequate to the event. No Court can touch this realm.
If democracy is to triumph over dictatorship, the “rule of law” must be secured against attempts by ambitious military men to supersede civilian rule. This country was born out of Pakistan’s denial of the outcome of the 1970 election. On 25 March 1971 after weeks of non-violent civil disobedience demanding the implementation of the election, a terrible massacre began on the grounds of this university. It marked the beginning of the War of Liberation.
On 15 August 1975, a group within the Army aligned itself with a complex set of forces and set this country back. It appeared that the Pakistan model was being restored in an independent Bangladesh. Years of military dictatorship or quasai dictatorship prevailed where the assassins of Mujib lived as “protected persons” under the regimes of Zia and Ershad. In August 2007, after soldiers and students clashed at Dhaka University, the country moved dangerously close to yet another period of military dictatorship. The DGFI once again became a feared organization as it picked up professors, students and other civilians. Torture in secret interrogation cells was back on the agenda.
With great maturity and discipline, the faculty and students of this and other universities, demanded in non-violent demonstrations and candle light vigils, the restoration of democratic institutions and the release of political prisoners. The courage that was shown was impressive. A divided Army and Caretaker Government backed away from the precipice.
Prominent friends of Bangladesh such as Senator Edward Kennedy called upon the Caretaker Government and the Army to release its prisoners and to end the cruel torture of its detainees. For months many of us had feared that for the first time since March 25, 1971, the Dhaka University campus might become the scene of a grim massacre of innocents. Where that would have ended one could only imagine.
Thus, the questions we explore tonight are not merely academic. They are critical to the lives and security of the people of this country. If a civilian democracy is to endure, its legitimacy must be grounded in program that achieves economic and social justice for a population that is struggling against poverty and underdevelopment.
Whether the path is social democratic, socialist or capitalist, the “rule of law” and the right to habeaus corpus and a fair trial can only be institutionalized if the state and its judiciary can become a guarantor of a just society. The French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, once wrote, “Justice and power must be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful and whatever is powerful may be just.”
This is the challenge ahead. In my view, the March 22nd decision by Justices Chowdhury and Hossain was a watershed. Although the Court’s decision was a major step forward, there are still matters of great importance that must be addressed if democratic institutions are to endure, and not be attacked again by those elements that still harbor ambitions of dictatorship.
This is the second time I have had the honor of speaking at the Teacher Student Center at Dhaka University on this day of remembrance in honor of Abu Taher. As I thought about how I would frame my remarks, the words of a great American kept entering my thoughts. I had the privilege of growing up, as a young man, while Martin Luther King was still alive.
I remember the night he died and how the students at Yale University poured out of their hostels that evening in a state of shock, and made their way to the home of the Reverend William Sloan Coffin, Martin Luther King’s comrade, and close friend in the Civil Rights Movement. Bill Coffin was the Chaplin at Yale. At a Memorial meeting in honor of Dr. King held at Yale’s Battelle Chapel, Reverend Coffin would recall Dr. King’s famous letter from the Birmingham Jail in the state of Alabama, where Dr. King had been arrested leading a non-violent protest against racial segregation.
As I thought of traveling to this great university, so full of history in Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom and democracy, I kept thinking of the words Martin Luther King wrote in April 1963 in his Birmingham prison cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In my view, what Martin Luther King said then directs us now down a hidden road of Bangladesh’s history which like Taher’s case requires the remedy of accountability and justice. Fifteen months after Taher was executed a great storm of death tore through the prisons of this country. Tonight we must talk about this.
Before the Supreme Court verdict I presented testimony to the Court on March 14th. In January I had sent in an Affidavit when it seemed that I would not be able to come to Dhaka to testify. In that Affidavit I reported how General Mohamed Manzur, former Chief of General Staff, and someone I had known for several years, informed me that he knew definitively that General Ziaur Rahman had taken a decision to execute Taher well before Special Tribunal No. 1 began its deadly process in Dhaka Central Jail.
Thus, in light of this information it was clear the proceeding of the Tribunal from the outset were merely a process to set up an execution that General Zia had already decided would take place. I later confirmed Manzur’s report with two other military sources that had been close to Zia during this period.
Following the submission of my Affidavit and my testimony, several BNP leaders publicly attacked me, claiming that I had been hired by the Government to denigrate General Zia. I had not uttered a word of criticism of the BNP. According to a report in The Daily Star, “a BNP standing committee member, M.K. Anwar, alleged that the government had hired a foreign journalist (Lifschultz) to assassinate the character of [the] late Ziaur Rahman.” A few days after this report was published, I telephoned M. K. Anwar, and spoke with him.
I said I was a journalist and I wanted to interview him about his evidence that a foreign journalist had been hired by the current Government to disparage General Zia. I said that I was interested in his evidence and his facts. I was then still in Dhaka and asked him for an appointment. He refused to give me one.
I then asked him if could he tell me over the phone what his facts were. I suggested we could do a telephone interview. I could even record it so the record would be clear. Mr. Anwar refused to tell me what evidence he had that I had been “hired”. I said this was a very important allegation and we should get to the bottom of it. He refused to continue the conversation or agree to meet me. He hung up the phone.
About ten minutes later Mr. Anwar called me back. I said I was very pleased to hear from him and hoped that he had changed his mind and had agreed to an interview. However, this was not the reason for the call. Clearly, having spoken to an attorney in the intervening ten minutes, Mr. Anwar said he wanted to make clear that when he made his allegation about a certain foreign journalist having been “hired” by the government, he hadn’t actually mentioned any name. Even if The Daily Star on March 16th had indicated that M. K. Anwar in his March 15th press conference was talking about “Lifschultz”, Anwar claimed to me he had not named anyone specifically.
I asked Mr. Anwar if it was simply coincidental that I, had testified before the Supreme Court, the day before on the 14th, and the very next day, he claimed some unnamed journalist had been hired by the government.
I asked Mr. Anwar, if it wasn’t Lifschultz, who was he talking about? I said I would be very interested in investigating the possibility that the Government had been paying foreign journalists. If he was now unwilling to say I was the culprit, then perhaps he would be good enough to identify the person he was talking about. Yet again he wouldn’t tell me. He merely repeated several times, “I didn’t mention anyone’s name.”
However, the BNP Senior Joint Secretary General of the BNP, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, was not so coy. He alleged that I was seeking to “disgrace” General Zia. He used my name in this allegation. I have today written to Mr. Alamgir and asked him for an interview where he would be willing to discuss his earlier comments in greater detail. I hope Mr. Alamgir will meet me and discuss his allegations “on the record”. In this respect I hope he will have more courage than Mr. Anwar.
Unlike Mr. Alamgir or Mr. Anwar, I am not in the business of “disinformation”. I am in the business of “information”. This includes finding out facts that sometimes are not known to the general public. It is a profession called journalism.
I have not personally denigrated, General Ziaur Rahman. The real question is whether an investigation of the facts and past events have revealed aspects about General Zia which may be disturbing and possibly reflect unlawful activity. If General Zia committed crimes while he was in power, it is not “the reporter” who reports “the facts” that denigrates the man. It is the man himself, and his own actions that are to be held to account and assessed by the public.
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 19 January 1978, the Secretary General expressed profound concern at reports alleging that hundreds of military men had been executed since 2 October and that executions were continuing.”
On 5 March 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 25 March 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. Not 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 organize 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, “mobilized 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 program 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 recognized 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. General Zia was in a Macbeth like state and seemed capable of slaughtering all of his perceived enemies, whether they were real or unreal. But, Sean MacBride’s presence in my view brought this particular phase of the nightmare to a close.
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 authorizing over 200 executions but he did not know the actual total 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 here 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 their 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 & 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 traveled 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 subsequently were produced.
For example, an executioner at Comilla Jail claimed to Ahsan that he 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 7th and October 26th. Many of the trials supposedly began on October 7th and executions began on October 9th. 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 7th that denied the accused a right to a lawyer to prepare his defense 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 U.S. government document to The Washington Post for an article entitled “Bangladesh Executions: A Discrepancy” (10 February 10, 1978) was nothing but a paid agent of someone or some organization 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, organized 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 has 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 & 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.
When I visited Bangladesh last March to present testimony to the Supreme Court, I had the opportunity of visiting with the staff of a number of newspapers. I kept raising one question. After so many years I could not quite understand the intensity of the public interest and discourse generated by Taher’s case.
I was certainly pleased by the public discussion and the additional attention that the Supreme Court decision generated. Having remembered the tragic injustice of 1976 and the painful isolation of so many people at that time, the overturning of Taher’s verdict was indeed a “dream come true.” Yet, I still could not fully grasp how and why the case had come to grip the public’s imagination in the way that was so compelling. I asked people I met to explain this to me.
One of the most interesting answers came during a luncheon meeting that took place at Prothom Alo’s large conference room. Much of the editorial staff were packed into the room for the discussion that day. One of Prothom Alo’s young journalists, Farukh Wasif, answered my question in a way that opened my eyes. He explained that in the perspective of his generation there were many “blank spaces” in Bangladesh’s history. The narratives he had grown up with were essentially missing entire pages from the country’s history. These were not minor lapses but essential chapters. Taher’s story represented a “missing” chapter.
The compelling issues underlying the Supreme Court case were also among the “missing ”. The Supreme Court’s review of Taher’s execution and the unlawful methods that were used in staging a secret trial opened people’s minds to a reexamination of the past. In essence, the Supreme Court was doing much more than only passing judgment in an important case. The Court was facilitating the “recovery of history”.
What Farukh also said was that looking back at Bangladesh’s history since Independence there were so few people the younger generation could admire. The political culture of this country is littered with tarnished personalities. In Farukh’s view, Taher was clearly a man who “wanted to do good” for this country. He had shown immense courage and integrity during the Liberation War and in the period that followed.
Taher remained a man of high principles. He was a man who conquered fear in his quest to liberate the poor. At the end of his testimony to the Tribunal Taher said, “In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, I will only say that I love my country and my people. I am part of the soul of this nation. No one can separate us. There is no greater asset in life than the possession of a fearless mind. And, I have that. I offer a call to my nation to acquire the same determination.”
He died with honor and remained dedicated to those principles for which he had fought in 1971. He was a man the younger generation could look upon with respect and admire. I think that says it all. Nearly.
I offer one final word. The road that lead to the Supreme Court’s March 22nd verdict in Taher’s case was a road followed by a committed group of individuals who at the outset had to face the intense pain over the loss of this man’s life, frequent loneliness and ultimately the adoption of a tenacious commitment that spanned two generations. No one person is responsible for what has been accomplished. It was a journey that a few began and others joined along the way. The team remained small but dedicated.
I believe the story of those who struggled for justice on behalf of Abu Taher over many years epitomized what Margaret Mead, the renown anthropologist once described as the only way forward for human civilization. “Never doubt,” she said, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
By: Lawrence Lifschultz.