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Sheikh Hasina

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Bangladesh: Swift Justice

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 – twenty 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 twenty 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, thirty-five 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 last Tuesday (7 April). 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 far-sighted 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.
To shorten to700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“The other…way”)

Bangladesh: The Deal Breaks Down

8 January 2014

Bangladesh: The Deal Breaks Down

By Gwynne Dyer

Last Sunday they held an election in Bangladesh, and nobody came. Well, practically nobody: turn-out was down from 70 percent in the last election to only 20 percent. Some of the absentees stayed away on principle, but others were just frightened away by the violence: more than a hundred polling stations set on fire, and 200 dead in political violence in the last two months. The past is back with a vengeance in Bangladesh.

It wasn’t actually former US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger who predicted that an independent Bangladesh would be “an international basket case.” It was American diplomat Ural Alexis Johnson, at a meeting in December, 1971, only days before Pakistani forces surrendered and Bangladesh won its independence. Kissinger merely observed that it would “not necessarily (be) our basket case.”

Nevertheless, it was attributed to Kissinger, and it became the defining prediction about Bangladesh’s future. Over the next two decades it seemed pretty accurate: it was a country where poverty was endemic, famine was an occasional visitor, political turbulence was permanent, and there were frequent military coups. But since the restoration of democracy in 1991, the narrative has been very different. Until now.

In the past 20 years the country has seen rapid economic growth, a steeply falling birth rate, and the advent of universal primary education. Average life span is 70 years, and average income has doubled since 1975. Not bad for the world’s most densely populated large country, with few natural resources and 160 million people crammed into the same area as England (New York State, Malawi, Jordan). But now the narrative is changing again.

The problem is politics. Ever since the return of democracy in 1991 Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two women who utterly loathe each other. Sheikh Hasina, currently prime minister and leader of the left-leaning, secular Awami League, is the daughter of the country’s “founding father,” Mujibur Rahman, who was murdered in 1975 together with almost all his family by rebel army officers.

Her opponent of 20 years’ standing is Khaleda Zia, leader of the conservative, more religiously inclined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). She is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who became president after several more military coups and was then himself assassinated in yet another coup in 1981. Khaleda Zia’s husband was not one of the plotters who murdered Sheikh Hasina’s father, but the latter sees him as having come from the same stable.

The animosity between them can get very petty. For example, none of Khaleda Zia’s official documents list the date of her birth as 15 August, but that is when she chooses to celebrate her birthday. It is the date when Sheikh Hasina’s father Mujibur Rahman, her mother, and all her brothers were massacred . The argument about whether it is really Khaleda’s birthday has been taken as far as the High Court.

Bangladesh might have moved on from its tragic early history much faster if both women had chosen other careers. Nevertheless, they have both shown enough respect for the law and the democratic process that the country has prospered while they alternated in office ever since 1991.

Even in 1996, when the Awami League boycotted the election and the BNP therefore won by a landslide, the two leaders managed to finesse their way out of the crisis. The new BNP-dominated parliament quickly amended the constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to take over and supervise new elections – which the Awami League won.

But this time the whole thing has gone off the rails. Sheikh Hasina, who has been prime minister since 2009, abolished the “neutral caretaker” system the following year. So when she announced an election on 5 January that would be run by her own Awami League government, the BNP assumed that the election would be rigged and declared that it would boycott it.

The Islamist Jemaat-e-Islami Party, the BNP’s usual election ally, went even further and began to make violent attacks (mostly beatings and fire-bombs) against both Awami League rallies and election officials. As the death toll mounted, the army and police started shooting at violent protesters, and it went up even faster.

In the end, the Awami League won 127 seats where there was no opposition candidate, and 105 of the 147 contested seats. It holds more than three-quarters of the seats in the new parliament, and its political allies and some independents hold the rest. But it has no democratic credibility at all. (The European Union, the Commonwealth, and the United States all refused to send observers to monitor the polls.)

This outcome is all the more surprising because 17 years ago Sheikh Hasina was standing in precisely the shoes Halida Zia is wearing now. Then it was the BNP that rigged the election and the Awami League that staged the boycott. Hasina must have known that her rival would respond exactly the same way this time, and that the only escape from the resultant crisis would be to bring back the “neutral caretaker” to supervise a rerun of the election.

She knew that, and yet she did it anyway. Which means that she must be determined to ride the protests out and not allow any caretaker government or election rerun. This is a formula for escalating violence and an eventual military coup. Bangladesh is in trouble.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3 and 7. (“It wasn’t…now”; and “The animosity…Court”)


Bangladesh: The Trials

17 July 2013

Bangladesh: The Trials

By Gwynne Dyer

Genocide is always a difficult crime for courts to deal with, and all the more so when it happened 42 years ago. But Bangladesh is really making a mess of it – largely because most of the old men on trial are leading members of a political party that is part of the country’s official opposition.

“It is undeniable that a massive genocide took place in the then East Pakistan,” Justice Anwarul Haque said on 17 July as he imposed a death sentence on Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, the Secretary-General of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. “This massacre can only be compared to the slaughter by Nazis under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.”

That is an exaggeration, but not a very big one. The official Bangladeshi estimate is that 3 million people were killed, and 200,000 women were raped, by the Pakistani army and its local collaborators during the independence war of 1971. Few countries have had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh.

For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But it was always controlled by the western half (today’s Pakistan), and when it attempted to break away in 1971 the Pakistan army tried to drown the independence movement in blood.

It was aided by local paramilitary groups, made up mostly of pious Muslims who believed that Pakistan must be preserved as the single home for all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Initially they targeted secular intellectuals and the Hindu minority for murder, but in the end they were slaughtering whole villages that supported the nationalist cause. The killing lasted for nine months.

Eventually the Indian army intervened and the Pakistani forces were forced to surrender. But the Pakistani soldiers were all sent home, and the leaders of the local paramilitary forces that fought alongside them fled abroad. And then, after some years in exile, the leaders of the genocide came home again and went into politics.

They came home because a military coup in 1975 virtually exterminated the family of Mujibur Rahman, the secular politician who led the country to independence. The generals who wound up in power tried to win popular support by pushing an Islamic agenda, which left the returned exiles free to found the Jamaat-e-Islami Party. By the 1990s, when democracy returned, they were even serving as junior partners in governing coalitions.

Their senior coalition partner was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, created by one of the generals and still led by his widow, Khaleda Zia. The other main party, the Awami League, is led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the martyred “father of the nation”, Mujibur Rahman. The two women loathe each other, and their bitter rivalry has dominated and often paralysed Bangladeshi politics for the past twenty years.

Sheikh Hasina promised to put the perpetrators of the genocide on trial in her election platform in 2008. She won by a landslide, and the trials began in 2010. There was strong international support for her decision at first, but the conduct of the trials has left much to be desired. Most of the accused were certainly implicated in the killing, but the BNP has quite rightly accused the government of politicising the trials.

The Jamaat-e-Islami has portrayed the trials as an attack on Islam, and when the first death sentence was handed down in February there were violent nationwide protests by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Youth League, leaving about 150 people dead. When the first life sentence was given out a few days later, hundreds of thousands of other young people demonstrated to demand the death penalty for all of those convicted.

They were driven by the fear that if the BNP wins the next election (due by January), then it will amnesty all the surviving Jamaat leaders to preserve its electoral alliance with the Islamist party. The Awami League has responded to their demand by passing a new law that shortened the time allowed for appeals, so that they can be hanged before the next election. Lynch law.

There is a way out of this, and it could end the twenty-year stalemate in Bangladeshi politics. In a poll before the last election, four out of five young Bangladeshis said they wanted to see the perpetrators of the genocide brought to trial: the crimes have not been forgotten. So give them what they want, but don’t kill anybody.

The Awami League said that it was setting out to exorcise “historical ghosts”, and it can do so without hanging old men. Nor does the BNP need to preserve its alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami: the party only got 3 percent of the vote in the last election.

So let the convictions stand but don’t hang anybody – most of them will be dead in a few years anyway – and just move on. It would take more statesmanship than either party has shown in the past, but it would open the way to a better future for the country.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The Jamaat…law”)

The Trials of Bangladesh

25 November 2009

The Trials of Bangladesh

By Gwynne Dyer

If a Shakespeare should ever arise in Bangladesh, he would have plenty of tragedies around which to weave his history plays. The country is only 38 years old, but the vendettas between the leading families, the murders and plots and coups, have been just as tangled and bloody as the ones in 14th and 15th-century England that gave the great playwright so much of his material. But that kind of history may be coming to an end in Bangladesh.

It’s not quite dead yet. Last February, at least 4,000 soldiers serving in the Bangladesh Rifles, a border defence regiment, mutinied and began killing their officers. Fifty-seven officers and 17 other people were murdered by the mutineers, who dumped their bodies in sewers and an incinerator. The violence spread to military camps all over Bangladesh.

The mutineers said that they were revolting against poor pay, but many people suspected that there was a political motive behind it all. If there was, it failed. The rest of the army remained loyal, tanks surrounded the regiment’s various camps, and the government promised to look into the rebels’ complaints if they surrendered.

That was a lie, of course: they were all arrested. The first nine soldiers went on trial for mutiny before a military court on 24 November and more than 3,500 others will follow in various military cantonments around the country, while several hundred others will be tried before civilian courts for murder, rape and looting.

This is not the kind of blood-spattered Shakespearean ending that Bangladeshis have become much too familiar with. The trials may even answer the question of whether there was a political motive behind the military uprising. But suppose there was. What could it have been?

There has been a second high-profile court case in Bangladesh in the past month. On 19 November the Supreme Court confirmed the death sentences for 12 former military officers who took part in the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975. The five ex-officers who are actually in custody, and whose final appeal was rejected, now face imminent execution for their crime of 34 years ago.

Few countries had a bloodier birth than Bangladesh. For a decade and a half after the partition of India in 1947, it was just the eastern wing of Pakistan, a country in two parts with a lot of Indian territory between them. But the two parts never got along, and when what is now Bangladesh tried to leave Pakistan in 1971 it got very ugly.

The Pakistan army killed up to three million people in rebel “East Pakistan” before Indian military intervention forced it to withdraw. East Pakistan then became the independent country of Bangladesh, and the country’s nationalist political leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (who had spent the war in jail in West Pakistan) came home to lead it.

Mujib was an autocratic man: by 1975 he had closed down all the opposition papers and declared himself president for life. But he did not deserve what happened to him and his family.

In the early hours of 15 August, 1975, a group of young officers stormed Mujib’s house and killed everybody in it, including his wife, his three sons (one was only nine years old) and his servants. Twenty people in all. Only his two daughters, who were abroad at the time, survived. One of them, Sheikh Hasina, is now the prime minister. (I told you it was Shakespearean.)

The young officers who murdered Mujib were overthrown by a different group within months, and another coup removed that bunch before the end of the year. Eventually power ended up in the hands of General Ziaur Rahman, who was also murdered by fellow officers in 1981. His widow, Khaleda Zia, has been prime minister three times, and still leads the main opposition party.

General Zia was not involved in the murder of Mujib, but he did end up allied to the people who had killed him: officers who detested Mujib’s secularism, and in some cases had helped the Pakistani army slaughter their own people during the independence war. They killed Zia too, in the end, but that does not stop Zia’s widow and Mujib’s daughter from hating each other.

That personal vendetta has virtually paralysed the politics of a country with half the population of the United States. Ever since democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1990, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have alternated in power, each devoting all her time in opposition to sabotaging the other’s initiatives. But now the page may have turned.

The Supreme Court’s confirmation of the death sentences on the ageing conspirators of 1975 may finally enable the country to move past its obsession with those horrific murders. If there was a political motive behind the Bangladesh Rifles mutiny, it was to stop that verdict from being passed, but the insubordination did not spread.

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won the last election by a landslide, and the army stayed loyal to the elected government right through the mutiny. The Bangladeshi Shakespeare may be running out of material.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 14. (“This is…been”; “Mujib…family”; and “The Supreme…spread”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.