Paper no.1158

05. 11. 2004

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: Politicisation of Crime in Bangladesh  

Guest Column-by Col R Hariharan (retd.) 

If there is a case study on getting away with murder is needed, the recently concluded ‘Jail killing case’ in Dhaka provides one. This case is taken as a model in this paper for analysis, not to denigrate Bangladesh but to highlight the growing threat of politicisation of crime (as opposed to criminalisation of politics) in South Asia as a whole, including India. This case has also been used for analysis because the free spirit of Bangladesh press has ensured that maximum details are available in public domain (unfortunately this is not the case in India or Pakistan). The Jail killing case relates to the planned execution of four top Awami League leaders imprisoned in Dhaka Central Jail on November 3, 1975. They were the men who led the freedom struggle by forming the Bangladesh government in exile - Syed Nazrul Islam, acting president, Tajuddin Ahmed, prime minister, M Mansur Ali, finance minister, and AHM Qamaruzzaman, home affairs, relief and rehabilitation minister. Army men in uniform entered Dhaka Central Jail and killed all the four of them.  The leaders were imprisoned after a successful coup that followed the massacre of the founding father and President of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his wife and 14 other members of his family on August 15, 1975 by the same Army men!

Immediately after the jail killings, the bureaucracy was meticulous in taking follow up action. Kazi Abdul Awal, deputy inspector general (prisons), in the first information report (FIR) filed with Lalbagh Police Station on November 4, 1975, accused Captain Moslemuddin and four other army officers of the killings. The officer-in-charge of the Police Station tasked ABM Fazlul Karim with the investigation. Their prosecution should have been a cakewalk because the killers proudly proclaimed their crime. But the police investigation and trial did not go any further. What followed was a bizarre sequence of events one would associate with mafia rule rather than a civilised government. Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmed, who became the President without the nicety of peoples’ mandate, promulgated the infamous Indemnity Ordinance that blocked the investigation into the cold-blooded murders of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family as well as the four leaders. The Martial Law government of Gen. Ziaur Rahman that followed took the ordinance into the statute book, and gave protection to the murderers under the cloak of law. Gen HM Ershad, the military dictator who succeeded Zia, followed the footsteps of his predecessors; he took no action. In fact some of the killers were provided diplomatic appointments abroad and kept on state payroll. At last when a democratically elected government of Begum Khaleda Zia came to power in 1991, there was expectation of the law taking its course against the killers. But she fared no better and stuck to the past. The police probe was reopened only on August 18, 1996, 21 years after the crime was committed, only when Awami League and Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina came to power, after she annulled the indemnity law.

On October 12, 2000 the court framed charges against 21 persons including 17 former army officers and four political leaders – K M Obaidur Rahman (currently an MP of BNP), Taheruddin Thakur, Shah Moazzem Hossain and Nurul Islam Manzoor.  They were all close associates of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and joined the Cabinet of Khondaker Mushtaque Ahmed, another ‘confidante’ of the Sheikh, after Mujib’s killing 1975. Two of the key accused – former president Khondaker Mushtaque Ahmed and former secretary Mahbubul Alam Chashi escaped prosecution, as their deaths had overtaken the long arm of law and they had to be dropped from the charge sheet.

But the government interference in the proceedings did not stop. Soon after the Awami League government went out of power and present BNP alliance government took over in 2001, five of the accused Obaidur Rahman, Nurul Islam, Shah Moazzem Hossain, Taheruddin and Major (retired) Khairuzzaman got out on bail.  In fact the government reassigned Khairuzzaman to a foreign ministry job last year! All the five of them have been acquitted now.

Though the list of 21 accused looks impressive only eight were physically present. With five out on bail, only three - Lt Col (retired) Syed Faruque Rahman, Lt. Col (retired) Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan and Major (retired) Bazlul Huda were in jail custody. They have already been convicted and given death sentence for slaughtering Mujibur Rahman and his family. Twelve others had to be tried in absentia while another Lt Col (relieved) Abdul Aziz Pasha was missing, believed to be dead. The accused on the run include Risalder (retired) Moslehuddin, Lt Col (dismissed) Khondaker Abdur Rashid, Lt Col (relieved) Shariful Haq Dalim, Lt Col (retired) SHMB Noor Chowdhury, Maj (retired) AKM Mohiuddin Ahmed, Lt Col (retired) AM Rashed Chowdhury, Major (relieved) Ahmed Shariful Hossain, Capt (retired) Abdul Majed, Captain (relieved) Kismat Hasem, Captain (relieved) Nazmul Hossain, Dafadar (dismissed) Marfat Ali Shah and Dafadar (dismissed) Abdul Hasem. It is significant that many of them were promoted to higher ranks when they were protected under the Indemnity Law. They are on the run at present, no doubt aided and abetted by their well-wishers and partners in crime in political parties, bureaucracy and the Army.

The trial that began on April 12, 2001 was completed in 282 working days. Three junior officers were given death sentence for the crime while 11 of the 12 absconding accused officers were given life sentence. It is significant that all the 11 have already been sentenced to death for killing Mujibur Rahman and his family. While pronouncing the verdict, Justice Motiur Rahman, blamed the Investigating Officer (IO) for faulty investigation and said all the killers of the four national leaders could not be awarded capital punishment due to IO’s negligence. Abdul Akhand Kahar, an assistant superintendent of police at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) who was the IO in the case in August 1996, was transferred to Barisal in October 2001 immediately after the BNP alliance government assumed office. He was sent on forced retirement a year later. Commenting on the judge’s observation Kahar said ""It is unlikely that an IO would be able to perform his duties smoothly 21 years after an incident…The public prosecutor did not do what was necessary for a proper prosecution in such a very special case. Since investigation officers play a significant role in a trial, the state side always tries to make their best use during the whole trial process. But unfortunately it did not happen in my case. I was transferred and later sent to forced retirement.” The former CID officer alleged "I would have helped the prosecution if I were in Dhaka. Even after my retirement, the state side could have taken my help. But I was kept away and they did not keep me involved in the case."  There were other flaws. The original charge sheet could not be traced. Jail officers and security personnel who were on duty during the killings were not charge-sheeted. Due to the inordinate delay another key witness and second investigation officer Saifuddin Ahmed (now 84 years old) suffered from paralysis and could not depose before the court.

Commenting on the judgment, the Awami League said the ruling BNP government of Begum Khaleda Zia had dictated the verdict. The families of the murdered men accused the government of interfering in the trial process to save some of the accused.  But Law Minister Moudud Ahmed said the court had never been influenced and the government had no political interest in the case.

It is evident that politicisation of crime has become the order of the day in Bangladesh. Media has accused the government of not keeping its promise to free the administration from political influence as most of the appointments -- from those of judges of the High Court down to village officials were now decided on political grounds. The appointment of a former MP of the ruling BNP and relatives of party high-ups as HC judges has drawn a lot of flak. These appointments are reported to have forced the High Court lawyers to decide not to say "My Lord" in courts of these ‘tainted’ judges. On assuming office the BNP government sacked 15 judges recruited during the Awami League regime. Political parties regularly use goons to disrupt other parties’ political meetings; even a meeting addressed by the former President Badruddoza Chowdhury had to meet this fate recently in Rangpur.

As crime prevention was an important electoral promise of the BNP alliance, the government has created a number of elite crime-busting units such as Rapid Action Team, Rapid Action Battalion, Cobra and Cheetah. Their operations have created fresh problems as custodial and encounter deaths have become common. In one operation alone about 50 people have died in such circumstances. Among those killed are local politicians from BNP, Awami League and leaders of right wing student unions.  Of course, vigilantism by fundamentalist elements and crimes by the so-called student unions of different political parties have become too frequent. According to the Inspector general of Police Shahudul Haque "Since 1999 more than a dozen bombing and grenade attacks have taken place resulting in loss of life and injuries to more than 500 people, but unfortunately none of these cases could be solved.” Corruption, which started at the top from the day the country attained independence, has now become endemic part of the society.

Curiously, successive governments despite their promises to improve the situation have indulged in patronizing criminals to serve their ends.  The Rabelaisian touch has been provided by the bureaucracy, which had helped politicians to give a fig leaf of legitimacy to their actions as exemplified in the Jail Killing case. It is clear from the case that rule of law is at stake in Bangladesh. Political interests have been placed above national interests as evident from the blatant and open and often motivated illegal interventions given below:

1.      Passing of Indemnity Law specifically to prevent bringing the murderers of the head of state and Awami League leaders to book. In the case of Ziaur Rahman who was also killed in an abortive coup attempt, no such indemnity was extended.

2.      Removal of police official investigating the murders.

3.      Stalling prosecution of murderers.

4.      Killing of prisoners in custody (the murders took place 79 days after the coup).

5.      Connivance of bureaucracy to provide a legal veneer to politicization of crime.

6.      Infiltration of judiciary by vested interests to influence judgements.

7.      Planned efforts to stall arrests of accused, using state apparatus to help the accused, and providing sheltered appointments abroad.

Bangladesh holds a good lesson for India where progressively more and more persons with established criminal background are into politics. Almost all political parties have found it expedient to use them to coerce voters; often they get elected both at the state and central levels. If the present trend continues, our situation will be similar to the sad state obtained in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka is no better; states sponsored mass ‘cleansing’ operations have given way to selective killings by LTTE and its opponents with impunity. Unless, South Asian nations make a deliberate effort to establish rule of law, all talk of economic development and national prosperity will never reach the deserving masses but be cornered by criminal mafia. This process will involve a change in the mindset of political parties and a reawakening among the masses and above all, it requires a committed enlightened media; these appear to be possibilities only in the distant horizon.

(Col R Hariharan (retd) is an intelligence analyst with 27 years of experience in counter insurgency intelligence. He was an MI specialist on Bangladesh. E-mail:

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