Letter from Dhaka
Shortly after midnight here in Dhaka, five men convicted of Bangladesh’s most notorious murders were executed—34 years after the offense.
“Three hangmen . . . were brought to Dhaka Central Jail from Kashimpur jail for carrying out the executions,” reported New Age, the country’s second largest English-language newspaper. “Five coffins were taken inside the jail about 10:45pm. Five ambulances were also kept ready at the jail gate.”
When news spread that the nation’s Appellate Division had dismissed the condemned men’s pleas to review the verdicts, several hundred Dhakans gathered around the central jail. The government flooded the area with security forces, including men from the feared paramilitary outfit RAB—Rapid Action Battalion—that has been implicated in a number of extrajudicial killings. After the five men had been hanged, their bodies were loaded into ambulances for transport to their home villages.
This morning, I watched footage shot outside the jail after the execution on a Bangla-language TV news station. An ambulance crept through a horde of people—camera-wielding journalists as well as ordinary citizens—before speeding away.
In 1975, a group of Bangladesh Army officers ordered the execution of the president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Sheikh Mujib, as he was (and still is) known, had led the nation to independence from Pakistan after a brutal war, during which the Pakistani Army, whose base was in the west of the country, committed genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Sheikh Mujib’s home base. The army slaughtered between one and three million East Pakistanis. (An essential aside: The Nixon administration secretly sided with the west, feeding arms and aircraft to the Pakistani Army. Nixon apparently liked Pakistan’s military dictator better than Indira Gandhi, who backed East Pakistan with troops and funds.)
Soldiers stormed Sheikh Mujib’s home and murdered him, his wife, brother, three sons, two daughters-in-law, and two security officers. Only two family members survived. The army then seized power. Soon after, the military regime passed an “indemnity ordinance”—a hastily crafted decree that barred any government entity from bringing the killers to justice. This was more a duvet of immunity than your basic blanket.
Bangladeshis still revere Sheikh Mujib, and this decision taken by the army, which subsequent governments let stand, created a festering wound in the body politic. It’s as if Abe Lincoln and his entire clan had been dispatched and John Wilkes Booth left unpunished—and, in fact, allowed to prosper and hold a high-level post in the Federal government.
Two of Sheikh Mujib’s daughters were out of the country at the time of the murders. The eldest, Sheikh Hasina, is now prime minister. According to her spokesman, Hasina offered prayers of gratitude before the executions.
The streets in the Dhanmondi section of Dhaka, where I am now, are traffic-choked and chaotic, but no more so than usual. Bangladeshi journalist colleagues report no major disturbances or celebrations other than last night’s deathwatch. They are slightly perplexed by the lack of public demonstrations and tell me they suspect that the ruling party, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, instructed its people not to make a ruckus. The opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has issued no statements. This was an absolutely momentous event with very little public drama.
Six other men convicted of the assassinations—and condemned to death—remain in hiding. Perhaps the reaction will be different when they’re tracked down and given the same treatment. Then again, it might be similarly calm. Let’s hope so. Drama in Bangladesh often gets ugly, and military coups sometimes follow.