His name was Farooq Rahman, and he had been a major, and later, lieutenant colonel in the Bangladeshi army. He had returned to Bangladesh only recently, after several years in exile in Libya. What he had done in the past was not in dispute.
Before dawn on 15 August 1975, he had led the Bengal Lancers, the army’s tank unit under his command, to disarm the Rokkhi Bahini, a paramilitary force loyal to Sheikh Mujib. As Farooq left the Dhaka Cantonment, he had instructed other ofﬁcers and soldiers to go to the upscale residential area of Dhanmondi, where Mujib lived. Soon after 5 a.m., the ofﬁcers had killed Mujib and most of his family.
I had been rehearsing how to ask Farooq about his role in the assassination. I had no idea how he would react or respond.After a few desultory questions about the country’s political situation, I tentatively began, ‘It has been widely reported in Bangladesh that you were somehow connected with the plot to remove Mujibur Rahman from power in 1975. Would you…’ ‘Of course, we killed him,’ he interrupted me. ‘He had to go,’ he added, before I could complete my hesitant, long-winded question.
Farooq Rahman thought he was a patriot. He believed he had saved the nation. The governments that followed Mujib reinforced this self-belief and perception, rewarding him and the other assassins with respectability by giving them political space, and to some, plum diplomatic assignments. Farooq himself stood in presidential elections, which he lost badly.The Oxford-trained lawyer, Kamal Hossain, who was Mujib’s law minister and later foreign minister, told me, ‘The impunity with which Farooq operated was extraordinary. President Ershad encouraged Farooq to return because he wanted a candidate to stand against him in the rigged elections, so that the process would seem fair. In the face of the refusal of the opposition parties to participate in the elections which would legitimize his rule, Ershad encouraged Farooq to contest in the elections to give Ershad credibility.’
Farooq was able to operate with impunity for many years because the governments that followed Mujib were not keen to prosecute the killers and in the late 1970s, during the rule of Gen. Zia, the 5th Amendment to the constitution was passed, granting them immunity.
The political landscape in Bangladesh after Mujib’s murder was unstable. In its forty-two-year history, there have been several coups, and the form of government has switched from parliamentary to presidential to parliamentary again. The country has had eleven prime ministers and over a dozen heads of state, and there have been times when it has been ruled by generals, or by a caretaker government comprising unelected ofﬁcials.
Mujibur Rahman’s daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed had ﬁrst come to power in 1996 but her majority was precarious at that time—her party, the Awami League, had won 146 of 300 seats, and relied on the support of other parties to rule. But when she came to power with an absolute majority in 2009, Hasina was determined to redeem her father’s reputation and seek justice. Her quest has larger implications for Bangladesh’s citizenry. Hundreds of thousands—and by Bangladesh government estimates perhaps three million—people were killed during the 1971 war.
Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis now wait for justice—to see those who harmed them and their loved ones brought to account. But the culture of impunity hasn’t disappeared. Even for Sheikh Hasina, it took more than three decades before she received some measure of vindication, and one reason she was elected in 2008 was because she promised to set up tribunals to prosecute individuals accused of having committed international crimes, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Sometime in the afternoon of 27 January 2010, Mahfuz Anam received a call from a government ofﬁcial, saying that the end was imminent. Anam was in the newsroom of Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper, The Daily Star, where he is the editor. He knew what the message meant: perhaps within hours, ﬁve men—Lt. Col. Farooq, Lt. Col. Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan, Lt. Col. Mohiuddin Ahmed, Maj. Bazlul Huda, and army lancer A.K.M. Mohiuddin—would be hanged by the neck until they died at the city’s central jail. Anam told his reporters to be prepared, and sent several reporters and photographers to cover the executions.
‘We had hints that the end was near, particularly when the relatives of the ﬁve men were asked to come and meet them, and given hardly any notice,’ Anam told me during a long telephone conversation a week after the executions. ‘The authorities had told the immediate families that there were no limits on the number of relatives who could come, and they were allowed to remain with them until well after visiting hours. We knew that the ﬁnal hours had come,’ he said.
Once the families left, the ﬁve men were sent to their cells. They were told to take a bath and offer their night prayers.Then the guards asked them if they wanted to eat anything special. An imam came, offering to read from the Quran. Around 10:30 p.m., a reporter called Anam to say that the city’s civil surgeon, Mushﬁqur Rahman, and district magistrate Zillur Rahman had arrived at the jail. Police vans arrived 50 minutes later, carrying ﬁve empty cofﬁns. The paramilitary force known as the Rapid Action Battalion, took positions at various nodal points in the city that were prone to strikes and stoppages at the slightest political pretext, providing support to the regular police force to prevent demonstrations. Other leading ofﬁcials came within minutes: the home secretary, the inspector general of prisons, and the police commissioner. Rashida Ahmad, who was at that time news editor at the online news agency, bdnews24.com, recalled: ‘Many media houses practically decamped en masse to the jail to “experience a historic moment” ﬁrsthand.’ Anam told me, ‘By 11:35 p.m., we knew it would happen that night. We held back our ﬁrst edition. The second edition had the detailed story.’
Bazlul Huda was the ﬁrst to be taken to the gallows. He was handcuffed, and a black hood covered his face. Eyewitnesses have said Huda struggled to free himself and screamed loudly as guards led him to the brightly lit room. An ofﬁcial waved and dropped a red handkerchief to the ground, the signal for the executioner to proceed. It was just after midnight when Huda died. Mohiuddin Ahmed was next, followed by Farooq, Shahriar, and A.K.M. Mohiuddin. It was all over soon after 1 a.m.
Earlier that day, the Bangladesh Supreme Court had rejected the ﬁnal appeal of four of the ﬁve convicts. Shahriar was the only one not to seek presidential pardon. His daughter Shehnaz, who spent two hours with her father that evening, later said: ‘My father was a freedom ﬁghter; and a man’who ﬁghts for the independence of his country never begs for his life.'
Sheikh Hasina was at her prime ministerial home that night. She was informed when the executions began, she reportedly asked to be left alone and later offered namaz-e-shukran, a prayer of gratitude. Many people, most of them supporters of the Awami League, had gathered outside her house that night, but she did not come out to meet anybody. A few days later, she told a party convention that it was a moment of joy for all of them, because due process had been served…
…This is what happened.
Dhanmondi in 1975 had not changed much from how it looked in the 1950s, soon after Pakistan’s independence, when Dacca, as the city was then known, was the provincial capital of East Pakistan. The roads were lined with two-storey houses, the trafﬁc quiet and unhurried. Today, there are multi-storey buildings, English-medium schools, new universities, shopping malls and hookah bars to lure younger crowds. Back in 1975, the area was quieter. In the evening, people strolled along the periphery of the large lake in the middle of the neighbourhood and at night you could hear the tinkling bells of cycle rickshaws.
On 15 August 1975, before dawn, 700 soldiers left their barracks and headed for the three homes where Mujib and his family lived. Everyone was still asleep at Mujib’s house, #677 on Road 32.They ﬁrst attacked the home of Abdur Rab Seraniabat, Mujib’s brother-in-law, at 27 Minto Road. Mujib heard about the attack. Seraniabat was a minister in Mujib’s government.
Mujib called his personal assistant, Mohitul Islam, who was at his desk, and asked him to call the police immediately. Mohitul tried calling the police, but was alarmed to ﬁnd that the phones weren’t working. When he used another secure line to call the telephone exchange, the person at the other end said nothing.
Mujib snatched the phone and shouted into the mouthpiece. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
At the time soldiers arrived at Mujib’s house, the guards outside were hoisting the national ﬂag. They were stunned to ﬁnd army ofﬁcers rushing in through the gate, ordering them to drop their weapons and surrender. A few shots were ﬁred.
Maj. Bazlul Huda entered Mujib’s house with several soldiers. A frightened servant woke up Mujib’s son Kamal, who got dressed and came down. Huda took out his gun and pointed it at Kamal even as Mohitul tried telling Huda that it was Kamal, Mujib’s son. But before he could complete the sentence there was a loud burst of gunﬁre and Kamal fell down, dead. Huda heard Mujib’s voice at the top of the staircase and ran to face him.
‘What do you want?’ Mujib asked Huda, whom he recognized. The soldiers pulled their triggers, spraying Mujib with dozens of bullets. Mujib’s body was thrown back and then forward, gushing blood which splattered the stairs and the wall. He was dead by the time his body stopped tumbling down the stairs. Before his burial the following day at his birthplace, Tungipara, the imam noticed at least ten bullets still lodged inside Mujib’s body.
The killers then went inside the house, and one by one, killed everyone they could ﬁnd: Mujib’s wife, Fazilatunnesa; Kamal’s wife, Sultana; Mujib’s other son, Jamal, and his wife Rosy; and Mujib’s brother Naser, who was heard pleading, ‘I am not in politics.’
Then they saw Russell, Mujib’s 10-year-old son, who was crying, asking for his mother. He, too, was killed…
…The junior ofﬁcers’ coup had proceeded exactly as planned. There had been no resistance from the moment Huda and his team had reached Mujib’s home. After taming the Rakkhi Bahini, Farooq arrived at Mujib’s gate, eager to know what had happened there. Huda told him calmly, ‘All are ﬁnished.’
When we met a decade after those killings, I asked Farooq: ‘And the 10-year-old boy: did he have to be killed?’
‘It was an act of mercy killing. Mujib was building a dynasty; we had to ﬁnish off all of them,’ he told me with a degree of ﬁnality, his arm slicing ruthlessly in the air, as if he was chopping off the head of someone kneeling in front of him. There was no mercy in his eyes, no remorse, only a hint of pride…
…At 9:25 a.m. on 26 January 2010, a four-member special bench of the Supreme Court’s appellate division met to decide on the review petition from the assassins. They rejected it two minutes later. Senior civil servants of the law and home ministry met at noon, and discussed the issue for three hours. Farooq, who had until then resisted writing his mercy petition, did so that afternoon. Ofﬁcials received it and dispatched his petition to the ofﬁce of the president within minutes. At 7:30 p.m., President Zillur Rahman rejected the petition.6 The quick turnaround of the documents was remarkable, although procedurally every step was taken properly. One lawyer remarked, ‘What you saw wasn’t due process; it was process with undue speed.’
The hangings occurred soon after midnight.
Excerpted with permission from The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy by Salil Tripathi, Aleph Book Company.
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