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A delay, then swift justice in Bangladesh

The murders happened 45 years ago, and what remains of the family has been seeking vengeance ever since. One of the killers was caught a week ago – and he was hanged at one minute past midnight on Sunday morning. Justice long delayed, but swift enough when it came.

Abdul Majed, then a young officer in the Bengal Lancers, an elite unit in the Bangladesh Army, was a member of the military team that assassinated the ‘Father of the Nation,’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975.

They slaughtered almost all of his family, too: his wife, three sons (the youngest was 10), two daughters-in-law, and all the servants in the presidential mansion – 20 persons in all. Mujibur Rahman, who led the struggle for independence from Pakistan, had turned out to be a poor choice as president, but it still seemed excessive to murder almost everybody he loved, too.

The only survivors of Mujib’s family were his two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, who were in Europe and missed the massacre. But the murderers had done what the army wanted, whether or not its senior officers knew about the coup in advance, and they were not punished. On the contrary, they were rewarded.

Mujib’s assassination inaugurated a long period of military rule in Bangladesh, with further coups and assassinations, but officially the men who killed Mujibur Rahman’s family were heroes. Embarrassing heroes, so they were mostly given posts as military attaches in Bangladeshi embassies overseas, but a special law was passed granting them immunity from prosecution for the crime.

Indeed, for 20 years they were looked after very well. Abdul Majed, whose personal best was the cold-blooded murder of four leaders of Mujib’s Awami League party in prison three full months after the massacre, was given a series of senior jobs in the civil service after he retired from the army, ending up as director of the National Savings Directorate. 

And then the roof fell in. Democracy returned, and in the 1996 election the Awami League won the election. Not only that, but its leader was Mujibur Rahman’s elder daughter, Sheik Hasina, who promptly became prime minister. Half the conspirators, including Abdul Majed, had the wit to flee the country at once; five others were arrested and held for trial.

It was a long wait. First parliament had to cancel the immunity law (1996) and then there was a trial (1998) in which all the murderers were found guilty. The six who had fled abroad were tried in absentia, but there was no doubt about their guilt since they had all proclaimed it themselves. So they were all sentenced to death.

First there was a series of appeals, and then Sheikh Hasina lost the next election and everything stalled for a while, and then she won again in 2009. The Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences, and the five men in prison in Bangladesh were hanged in January 2010, 35 years after the crime.

But the six who were abroad, including Abdul Majed, were still safe – until a week ago, when Abdul Majed left Calcutta in India, where he had been hiding for 22 years, and returned to Bangladesh. Secretly, he may have thought, but he immediately visited his family, and there was undoubtedly somebody watching them.

He was arrested in a rickshaw in Dhaka April 7. One quick appeal for presidential clemency, instantly rejected, and he was at the end of a rope by early on Sunday morning. Case closed.

The other fugitives, now living in Canada, the United States or Pakistan, will probably never be caught, but it doesn’t really matter. They are all in their 60s now, and they have already spent a quarter-century in exile and in hiding. Punishment enough, perhaps. Besides, in a weird way they may have done Bangladesh a favour. 

Mujibur Rahman was already a dictator and well on the way to becoming a monster when they killed him. With the enormous prestige he had as the ‘Father of the Country,’ he would have been very hard to get rid of any other way.

Nothing can justify what the murderers did, and their decision to slaughter his entire family is incomprehensible. They were ruthless young men on the make, not farsighted patriots, and the immediate aftermath of their crime was just a string of military dictators who did the country no favours at all. But it all ended pretty well.

The politics of Bangladesh remains turbulent and sometimes ugly, but as a country it is a success story. It is very crowded and poor in resources – Henry Kissinger once called it a ‘basket case’ – but its population is under control and it has the fastest-growing economy in Asia. Its GDP per capita has already overtaken Pakistan’s and it’s about to overtake India’s.

Not bad for a basket case.

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