Friday, April 23, 2010

Hizb ut-Tahrir Target Bangladesh

DOMINIC WHITEMAN

THE HATE-INCITING Islamist sect Hizb ut Tahrir has three clear goals: to establish a community of like-minded Hizb ut Tahrir members in host states, to sway public opinion in one or more host states to facilitate change of government, and, finally, to install a new government that implements Islam generally and comprehensively, carrying (its particular brand of) Islamic thought to people throughout the world.

Hizb ut Tahrir’s constitution is a typical, dark, Islamist, totalitarian, freedom-removing, theocratic and extremist formula for an Islamic Caliphate. Hizb ut Tahrir has distributed leaflets inciting the murder of lesbians and gay men. It has referred to suicide bombings as “legitimate” acts of “martyrdom”. One Hizb ut Tahrir member recently expressed his regret to the religious freedom organization Forum 18 that Hitler had not succeeded in eliminating all Jews. Hizb ut Tahrir is proscribed in Russia, Germany and many Muslim countries.

Embarrassingly, Britain is now Hizb ut Tahrir’s de facto headquarters, from where it fundraises and recruits, whilst supporting its extremist brothers and sisters across the globe. A ban on its activities is currently being reviewed by the British Government following the delivery of two dossiers of information on the sect’s activities by the anti terrorist group VIGIL in November 2006 and March this year.

The main spokesman for Hizb ut Tahrir, Dr Imran Waheed, who led a rally of 8,000 people in London in December 2005, is recorded as saying that there can be “no possibility of harmonious co-existence between Islam and the West. Ultimately one has to prevail.” Hizb ut Tahrir is – and has been for years - a systematic dissemination of venom and poison through duplicity; cloaked in a flawed and blatantly apostate interpretation of Taqiyya.

Hizb ut Tahrir – like most extreme Islamist groups (Al Qaeda, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, the Taliban and Hezbollah) – seek that elusive state from which they think they will be able to launch their religious and political ideologies and thus grow an Islamic empire. An empire – Hizb ut Tahrir refers to a caliphate - which, according to an archived webpage of the Hizb ut Tahrir website, would "wrest the reins of initiative away from other states and nations" and become the dominant hegemony before Islam ultimately takes over the world.

Since its inception in Jerusalem in 1953, Hizb ut Tahrir’s attempts at winning over a state – like almost all extreme Islamist parties’ attempts – have failed pitifully. In 1968 then 1969 Hizb ut Tahrir was allegedly involved in two failed coup attempts in Jordan and Syria. In 1974 Hizb ut Tahrir failed in a coup attempt in Egypt. Upset that they’d overestimated the number of nuts in their target states, in 1978 Hizb ut Tahrir begrudgingly acknowledged “that the Muslim Ummah had reached a state of total surrender and despair and was not responding to anything”.

After twenty years of banging its head against the wall (virtual silence punctuated by the occasional arrest of a member), in 1998 – incidentally the year of the Tanzanian and Kenyan US embassy bombings by Al Qaeda, and a year of marked Internet take-up – Hizb ut Tahrir suddenly decided once again that the world should know that “the Caliphate is the wish of all Muslims” and thus busily set about making as many people as possible believe in their parallel universe, hanging onto the coat-tails of 911 and consequent “victimization” of Muslims. Hizb ut Tahrir began a two level recruitment strategy – recruiting students who, when they found work, would keep the sect financially buoyant and uneducated “footsoldiers” who would eventually do their dirty work, when called upon to rise up and seize power.

Hizb ut Tahrir’s failures to get hold of a state rankle it most in Central Asia where it has large followings in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, as well as in China's traditionally Muslim Xinjiang Province. Its expansion into Central Asia coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s but it came across unexpectedly tough national leaders where it tried to grow – one of whom is alleged to have got so fed up with Hizb ut Tahrir that he boiled some of its members alive - and consequently Hizb ut Tahrir huffed and puffed but failed to make the breakthroughs it was banking on.

Now Hizb ut Tahrir has set its sights on weak, impoverished Bangladesh, where President Dr Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency in January this year. Hizb ut Tahrir has developed a considerable support base in Bangladesh and in the Bangladeshi community in the UK, describing the last 16 years of government in Bangladesh as ”a failure of the so-called democratic system run according to the dictates of foreign imperialists”. Hizb ut Tahrir Bangladesh has recently published its “Islamic Manifesto” for the country demanding a Khilafah (caliphate), widespread implementation of Shariah law and – perhaps most worrying for the impoverished Bangladeshi economy - for such measures as no foreign ownership of any of the country’s resources.

Yet Hizb ut Tahrir refuses to enter democratic elections wherever it is in the world, claiming elections contrary to Shariah law thus null and void – instead, in Bangladesh, according to its chief in Bangladesh, Mohiuddin Ahmed, wishing to establish Bangladesh as an Islamic state through “systematic movement”.

So what is this “systematic movement” Ahmed refers to, and does Hizb ut Tahrir really have a chance of gaining the keys to the unstable Bangladeshi state?

Hizb ut Tahrir denies sending death threats to politicians, journalists and intellectuals in Bangladesh, though this extremist sect has a record of sending death threats to try to get its own way. (Notably, the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell received numerous death threats from Hizb ut Tahrir representatives in the 1990’s). Through infiltrating government positions, Hizb ut Tahrir has brought pressure to bear on politicians through fear and finance.

Hizb ut Tahrir is recruiting followers at Bangladesh’s universities and several of its student activists have recently been arrested in the country for distributing inflammatory leaflets. It uses the old excuses of Palestine, Iraq and Western colonialism as the grounds for opportunistic recruiting – saying that its own policies will bring Bangladesh into a “Golden Age”, as once Islam (they allege) experienced. Any opportunity - whether it be cartoon protests or Papal utterances - presents the grounds for a Hizb ut Tahrir protest and recruitment drive.

Subsequent to a massive bombing attack on cities in Bangladesh on August 17th, 2005, Hizb ut Tahrir responded by accusing India of initiating a campaign to destabilize Bangladesh. Investigation later revealed the terrorist attack was carried out by another extremist Islamist faction in Bangladesh, Jama'atul Mujahideen. (Hizb ut Tahrir habitually accuses India, along with "Western colonial powers" of 'conspiracy' against the Bangladeshi populace, using speechifying not dissimilar to that used against the United States or Britain in the Middle East)

Certainly, Bangladesh is ripe for political change. And students – unlike in many other democracies – play an important part in Bangladeshi government. Student politics is particularly strong in Bangladesh, a hangover from the liberation movement era of the early 1970’s. Almost all parties have highly active student wings, and students have been elected to the Bangladeshi Parliament while still students.

The two major parties in Bangladesh are the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Awami League. BNP finds its allies among Islamist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and Islami Oikya Jot, while Awami League teams up with leftist and secularist parties. Another important player is the Jatiya Party, headed by former military ruler Ershad. The Awami League-BNP rivalry has been bitter and punctuated by protests, violence and murder – the three environments Hizb ut Tahrir thrives in.

Hizb ut Tahrir garners support and funds for its Bangladeshi designs in Bangladesh and in the UK.

One investigator from the anti terrorist organization VIGIL has been spending a considerable amount of time in the Tower Hamlets area of London – an area synonymous with Bangladeshi immigration and (in world-famous Brick Lane) Bangladeshi restaurants. 33 percent of the Tower Hamlet’s inhabitants are of Bangladeshi origins. It’s a deprived area with high levels of unemployment (like South Croydon, the kind of void area Hizb ut Tahrir look to expand their “footsoldier” recruitment in) .

From her investigations of the area, it has become clear that Hizb ut Tahrir (1) are spending considerable sums of money recruiting Bangladeshi Muslims in the area (2) taking out whole-page, cash-paid Hizb ut Tahrir recruitment ads in Bangladeshi newspapers (which keep some of the papers going according to one editor) (3) inviting Bangladeshis to Hizb ut Tahrir study circles and events (4) telling Bangladeshis not to vote in local or national elections as this is against the principles of Islam (5) distributing inflammatory propaganda leaflets in the area daily, which aim to attract the youth (6) at meetings declaring the West and, in particular, British life as deviant and corrupt – declaring even the Brick Lane festival as an event which Muslims should not be seen at because of the free mixing and alcohol present (7) underlying the “great work” Hizb ut Tahrir is doing in Bangladesh – how their work there is a portent of the Hizb ut Tahrir sponsored caliphate to come there (8) taking considerable funds off Bangladeshi recruits (9) apologizing for their failure in the past to recognize Bangladeshi Muslims as equals (Hizb ut Tahrir Britain consists predominantly of Pakistani Muslims who, as a group, have a well-documented superiority complex over Bangladeshi Muslims) and are actively looking to elect a British, Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi to their visible British leadership (10) are aggressively engineering takeovers of cash-cow Bangladeshi mosques in the Tower Hamlets area (11) are fishing the Tower Hamlets Bangladeshi community for useful, particularly Bangladesh Nationalist Party, political connections and routes for infiltration (12) are openly rejecting integration into British society, underlying the superiority of “Muslim identity” and the irrelevance of British “kuffar” laws (13) are privately distributing radical Islamist literature amongst members of the Bangladeshi Diaspora in Tower Hamlets (14) are particularly “providing structures of support” (radicalizing) Bangladeshi Muslims from the community in or recently out of jail and (15) are discreetly attending study circles and seminars in well-known private premises, who have been made aware (16) reports are coming through UK Bangladeshis that terror training camps are now springing up in Bangladesh to which British Bangladeshis are being sent.

More worrying is the evidence uncovered on the area’s East London Youth Forum, which is operating as a front organization for Hizb ut Tahrir. The Youth Forum engages Muslim youths in activities ranging from hiking to paint-balling – activities, which on the face of it, their (often 18 hour working day) parents are happy to see them partake in. Only, when these youths are away, then Hizb ut Tahrir starts the brainwashing. Undercover Sunday Times journalists accompanied members of the group to one paint-balling session last September in Zulu wood, Manchester, where an imam present described Osama Bin Laden as a "Muslim brother" and said it was the "responsibility" of every Muslim to bring back the caliphate. Kasim Shafiq, 28, a senior member of Hizb ut Tahrir who was present, declared that Muslims should not vote in British elections. "Our own shahadah [creed] tells us that the authority and law do not belong to the non-Muslims, so why are we going to vote for non-Muslims?" According to the Sunday Times, “The Asian group paid no attention to the 300 or so other players at the six-acre site, although they kept their voices down when, at the end of a game, the winning team called "Allahu Akbar [God is great]". During one game, a player said: "I’ve been shot." His team-mate replied: "Don’t worry, the shahid [martyr] never dies."

Hizb ut Tahrir’s focus in search of its “elusive state” has swung away from the Central European states like Uzbekistan – for now. It is focused primarily on a takeover of Bangladesh, from within Bangladesh and using the financial and political muscle of the Bangladeshi population living abroad. Or as one Bangladeshi Tower Hamlets resident put it to VIGIL’s investigator, “Bangladesh is home to corruption and political violence – in that chaos, any vaguely ordered Islamist group with cash and influence coming from abroad could seem like the solution.”

What are the odds of Hizb ut Tahrir succeeding in taking over Bangladesh, when they’ve failed in the past in all their coup attempts?

On the one hand, they have a chance. If the Jamaat e Islami party can be sufficiently infiltrated, bought out and threatened by Hizb ut Tahrir, they are already the largest partner of the largest political party in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

On the other hand, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has already banned two radical Islamist parties in Bangladesh –the JMJB and the JMB – so a likely deal with a group which is clearly in the pockets of Hizb ut Tahrir seems unlikely, unless Hizb ut Tahrir have sufficiently infiltrated the BNP (which, according to a BNP source, they have not).

Moreover, other factors play against Hizb ut Tahrir. For one, Bangladesh has instituted a unique system of transfer of power; at the end of the tenure of the government, power is handed over to members of a civil society for three months, who run the general elections and transfer the power to elected representatives – it is unlikely, even in the current political crisis, that Hizb ut Tahrir would not be revealed during these three months as the force behind a government looking to come to power. As a party seeking the caliphate, and therefore an end to democracy in Bangladesh, the three months would reveal their illegal attempt, by deception, at ending Bangladesh’s popular parliamentary representative democratic republic.

Moreover, Bangladesh is surrounded by India on all sides except for a small border with Myanmar to the far southeast and the Bay of Bengal to the south. Bangladesh is heavily dependent on India for direct foreign investment and much trade. India will not sit idly by while an extremist sect (of any kind) attempts a state takeover – nor will the wider international community.

There are several reasons why extreme Islamists will find assuming power in Bangladesh like pushing water uphill. But the key reason is that Bangladesh just isn’t a very religious place, particularly amongst the upper, ruling classes. A very traditional group of mullahs have a monopoly over religious institutions and their staid, unimaginative, conservative approach has made religion rather passé. This dullness was encapsulated in the award-winning Bangladeshi film Matir Moina – homeopathy and prayers instead of antibiotics, punishments for using one’s left hand to write and grim sermons on the conviction needed for Islam all commonplace.

Hizb ut Tahrir is – according to one BNP (Bangladesh) source – more likely to face a ban in Bangladesh than get even the slightest grip on the reins of power. Once again, it seems, the people are just not ready (or unwise?) enough to want to return to the Middle Ages and embrace Hizb ut Tahrir’s idea of a Caliphate.

Perhaps the people can remember what it was like in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Perhaps they can remember the Islamist factions’ attempts at taking control in Algeria in the 1990’s – where, in a Monty Pythonesque series of events which shocked even Al Zawahiri – Islamist sects began declaring that only they held the absolute truth and so set about slaughtering anyone who didn’t believe in their particular version of Islam (to the point where one Islamist sect leader, who also happened to be an illiterate chicken farmer, gathered his six disciples and went around murdering everyone else because they were, so he said, the only seven people in the world who held the truth, so all others, according to the Qu’ran he couldn’t even read, must die). Or maybe they just see through a sham when they are faced by one. (At the last time of counting the population of Bangladesh was 147,365,352. That’s an awful lot of people for Hizb ut Tahrir to con – an awful lot of paint-balling trips).

Hizb ut Tahrir’s actions are once again a worry for states across the world. The conveyor belt to terrorism, which they are part of, is still rolling and remains active in far too many countries. While Hizb ut Tahrir is an ever-present danger in that it radicalizes youths who may well go onto more extreme things, in relation to this extreme sect taking over a state perhaps we should worry less – for Muslims the world over think they are unbearably ugly and understand exactly why they have to wear a mask.

Even Muslim extremists warn about Hizb ut Tahrir. In a website “HT exposed” set up to warn fellow Muslims about the group’s dangers, an extremist Muslim group warns:

In reaction to this loss of the Khilafa in 1924 there arose many Islamic groups who claim to be fulfilling the obligation of working for the return of the Islamic State. Amongst these groups is one known as the "Hizb-ut-Tahrir." This group has been the cause of many of the youth being led astray, indoctrinated in false Islamic beliefs and fooled by false methodology. By this, they fall into those who maybe included in those astray sects who will be punished in the Fire of Jahannam, as made clear from the following aayah and hadeeth. "And whoever contends with and contradicts the Messenger after guidance has been clearly conveyed to him, and chooses a path other than that of the faithful believers (the companions and those that follow them in faith), We shall leave him in the Path he has chosen and land him in Hell, what an evil refuge" [Surah An-Nisa 4:115] "And this Ummah will divide into seventy-three sects, all of which except one will go to Hell and they (i.e. the saved sect) are those who follow what I and My Companions are upon." [Hasan Hadeeth, At Tirmidhee]. In particular they take a opinion on aahad narrations which is in opposition to the understanding of the scholars of the salaf, and they seek to confuse the youth by playing with words and their meanings, as will be made clear insha'Allah. We sincerely advise our brethren that maybe confused by these people to not let their eloquent speech confuse you. To the callers who call to misguidance after having the truth made clear, we remind you that the Fire of Jahannam is no joke.”

But let the last word go to Hanif Qadir, a moderate Muslim leader in East London who confirmed that Hizb ut Tahrir targeted “vulnerable young teenagers”, adding, “They can’t see the damage they cause to the Muslim community. If you want Sharia, then go and ask for it in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.”

Bangladesh, you must nonetheless be wary. Here’s a tip - you are not called “Ban”gladesh for nothing. #

First published in Global Politician, March 16, 2007


Dominic Whiteman is spokesperson for the London-based VIGIL anti-terrorist organization – an international network of terror trackers, including former intelligence officers, military personnel and experts ranging from linguistic to banking experts. He's currently the Editor of Westminster Journal

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Getting away with murder

Photo: Manik Chandra Shaha (Khulna) and below Shamsur Rahman (Jessore) were silenced because they were journalists
CPJ’s 2010 Impunity Index spotlights countries where journalists are slain and killers go free
NEW YORK based International press watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released the 2010 Impunity Index to coincide with an international summit on impunity which began on April 20 in New York, United States. The summit will convene press defenders and journalists from around the world to coordinate and improve strategies to reverse deadly violence against the press.

Deadly, unpunished violence against the press has soared in the Philippines and Somalia, the Committee to Protect Journalists has found in its newly updated Impunity Index, a list of countries where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes. Impunity in journalist murders also rose significantly in Russia and Mexico, two countries with long records of entrenched, anti-press violence.

This is the third year CPJ has published its Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population. In compiling the index, CPJ examined journalist murders in every nation in the world for the years 2000 through 2009. Cases are considered unsolved when no convictions have been obtained. Only those nations with five or more unsolved cases are included on the index, a threshold reached by 12 countries this year.

Two countries immersed in conflict top the list. Iraq is at number one with 88 unsolved journalist murders, while Somalia is second, reflecting insurgents’ routine use of violence to control the news media.

In many nations on the list, the plague of impunity is having a broader effect on society as a whole, effectively choking off the flow of news and information.

“We’ve heard repeated pledges from governments that the killers of journalists will face justice, but until these promises are fulfilled, media will continue to be targeted by those who believe they are above the law and immune from consequences,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director

Among the other findings in CPJ’s Impunity Index:
Impunity in media killings is acute in South Asia. Six nations in the region—Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India—are included on the 2010 list.

BANGLADESH
Bangladesh has been in a holding pattern. While no journalist murders have been reported since 2005, no convictions have been won in any of the seven unsolved killings perpetrated in the first half of the decade, when journalists faced heavy reprisals for their coverage of corruption, organized crime, and extremist groups. The most recent murder claimed the life of newspaper reporter Gautam Das, who was found strangled in his office in November 2005. Police arrested several suspects in the case, but to date none have been convicted.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.044 unsolved journalist murders per 1 million inhabitants.
Last year: Ranked 12th with a rating of 0.044



Population data sources:
Unless otherwise indicated, 2009 World Development Indicators, World Bank
* World Population Prospects 2008, United Nations Population Division

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bangladesh: Checking Islamist Extremism in a Pivotal Democracy

Cartoonist Shahrier, The Daily Star

MANEEZA HOSSAIN and LISA CURTIS


Bangladesh , the world's third largest Muslim-majority nation, is facing challenges from violent Islamist groups. The government is cracking down on radical groups and emphasizing the democratic principles of the country's founding, but radical Islamism still threatens to undermine stability in Bangladesh. Radicalization and terrorism are directly linked to government corruption and a lack of trust in the representative political process. To build trust in the political process, Bangladesh needs to strengthen its democratic institutions and develop a culture of transparency in the government that fosters accountability and restrains corruption.

The restoration of democratic government in Bangladesh, the world's third largest Muslim-majority nation, has helped to counter the immediate threat from Islamist extremists. Three years ago, when elections were postponed due to escalating political violence, observers warned that Bangladesh's traditional culture of tolerance and moderation was threatened by the political clashes as well as by rising Islamist militancy. Since the December 2008 election, the new government led by Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, has taken steps to stem Islamist extremism in Bangladesh by cracking down on radical groups and emphasizing the democratic principles of the country's founding.

However, like many nations in the "Muslim world," Bangladesh continues to struggle to define the role of Islam in society and governance. A robust civil society, a vibrant community of nongovernmental organizations, an independent judiciary, and active participation of women in the social and economic sectors have thus far contributed to denying extremists a foothold in the country. Yet Washington needs to remain closely engaged with Dhaka and continue to encourage democratic trends and steady development of the country's economy.

Until millions of Bangladeshis are raised out of poverty, governing institutions are strengthened further, and corruption is controlled, Bangladesh will face a threat from Islamist extremists seeking to undermine the country's democratic institutions and tolerant traditions. Preventing Bangladesh--a nation with 140 million Muslims--from falling prey to a volatile mix of radicalization and political unrest should be a top priority for Western policymakers. The U.S. should seek new ways to partner with the Bangladeshi government to stem the influence of Islamists so that they do not become an urgent threat to the country.

A Return to Democracy
More than a year has passed since the elections that put Bangladesh back on the democratic path. On January 11, 2007, the Bangladeshi military intervened in a precarious democratic process, effectively removing Bangladesh from the list of recognized democracies. One more Muslim-majority nation seemed to be heading toward prolonged autocratic rule. In December 2008, however, Bangladeshi democracy received another lease on life with elections that international observers deemed credible.

The return of democracy to Bangladesh is a welcome development, but the country continues to face challenges from groups that support Islamist ideologies as well as from groups that violently oppose the state. Without concerted action by government authorities and increased awareness among the Bangladeshi public about the agendas of these groups, the political center of gravity in Bangladesh could shift increasingly toward Islamism.[1]

While moderation and religious tolerance continue to be defining features of Bangladeshi politics, the secular discourse and ideals upon which Bangladesh was founded in 1971 have been diluted. Arguably, the process of integrating Islam more fully into the political sphere began as early as 1975, after General Ziaur Rahman assumed the presidency. He removed the reference to "secularism," a fundamental principle of Bangladeshi nationhood, from the preamble of the Bangladeshi constitution and replaced it with a new clause asserting that "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah" should be "the basis of all actions." Zia also lifted the ban on religious political parties, thus allowing Islamists a role within the political realm. Furthermore, to prove his own Islamic credentials, General Hussain Ershad, Zia's successor, declared Islam the state religion in 1988.[2] These military regimes, which took power through coups in 1975 and 1982, respectively, generally pursued policies of Islamization to gain political legitimacy.[3]

Islamist ideas have thus become more prevalent in the country's political discourse, a process spurred by the rising fortunes of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the predominant Islamist political party. The two major political parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the Awami League, have found it politically expedient to create space for political Islam in their own campaign rhetoric and to form short-term and long-term alliances with Islamist political parties. When the BNP ruled the country from 2001 to 2006, it formed an alliance with the JI, allowing JI members to hold cabinet positions for the first time. Although the JI has captured only about 6 percent to 8 percent of the vote in the past four elections, it is considered a kingmaker in Bangladeshi politics. Just before the 2007 election, the Awami League, which trumpets its secular credentials, found it politically expedient to reach out to the Islami Okiyo Jote, a smaller and more radical Islamist party.

The emergence of violent Islamist groups in Bangladesh over the past decade is another worrisome trend, although the Bangladeshi authorities have demonstrated a willingness to deal firmly with the threat. A handful of transnational terrorist groups, some with connections to Pakistan-based groups, stepped up attacks against the state in 2004-2005. On August 17, 2005, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) conducted the most spectacular of these attacks, a coordinated series of bombings throughout the country. On November 29, 2005, at least nine people were killed in another series of attacks on Bangladeshi courts, which further demonstrated that Islamist groups were seeking to weaken the state.[4] The bombings served as a wake-up call to the Bangladeshi government about the need to control Islamist terrorist groups. In March 2007, the military-backed caretaker government tried and executed six JMB leaders for their involvement in the August 2005 bombings.

While violent groups increased their attacks against the state, Islamist political parties initiated a campaign against the Ahmadiyya community in Bangladesh and demanded that the government declare them non-Muslims.[5] In 2004, the Bangladeshi government, then led by the BNP, banned the publication, sale, distribution, and preservation of all books and booklets on Islam published by the Ahmadiyya in Bangladesh. In June 2005, Islamists set fire to an Ahmadiyya mosque in Brahmanbaria and detonated more than two dozen bombs, injuring two people.[6] As Bangladesh scholar Dr. Ali Riaz noted in 2004, "The accommodation of political Islam [in Bangladesh]...has created a context within which political radicalism and social intolerance are increasing and soon may become the mainstay of politics."[7]

However, the U.S. State Department reported in its 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that the Bangladesh government has improved its protection of religious minorities, including the Ahmadiyyas. The report also noted that the Bangladesh High Court stayed the government ban on publishing Ahmadiyya literature, effectively allowing Ahmadiyyas to publish.[8]

The current Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has demonstrated its determination to deal firmly with violent Islamist groups and to roll back Islamist trends within the country's politics.[9] The Hasina government's October 23rd banning of the Islamist extremist group Hizbut Tahrir is one indicator that the Bangladesh government is taking a tough stance toward extremism and is committed to ensuring the country remains on a democratic and peaceful path. The Appellate Division of Bangladesh's Supreme Court also recently upheld the 2005 High Court decision to reinstate the ban on religious political parties, which was lifted in 1979 by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The Appellate Division dismissed two petitions challenging the High Court ruling, which had found the Fifth Amendment "illegal and unconstitutional." It is unclear whether the decision will lead to the official banning of religion-based parties.

Evolution of Bangladeshi Identity
Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan) was born in 1971 as a reaction to perceived exploitation and repression by the country's leaders located in West Pakistan (now Pakistan). Two main elements of identity have shaped the people in this land: the Islamic faith and Bengali culture. The cultural element gained prominence immediately after the War of Liberation. Both the United States and the Soviet Union viewed this local conflict as another manifestation of their proxy confrontation, and Bangladesh became a battlefield for competing regional and international interests, with Pakistan supporting local forces to counter India's influence. An ally of India and the Soviet Union, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the charismatic figure at the founding of the Bangladesh nation, incorporated secularism and socialism as national ideals enshrined in the Constitution. However, in its early years, the Bangladesh government failed in its nation-building tasks, and Sheikh Mujib even resorted to the one-party rule.

Bangladesh became a sustained democratic system only in 1991, with the election of Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The two subsequent elections were bitterly contested, but the results were still accepted. Regrettably, democratic government further amplified corruption, which was an endemic problem that predated the democratic era. The economic opportunities of the globalizing world of the 1990s also brought a modest prosperity to some Bangladeshis. The democratic era thus became a breeding ground for the vicious circle of corruption, patronage, and popular resentment.

In the context of democracy's eroding credibility, support for Islamist ideas began to grow in Bangladesh. The fading memory of the War of Liberation diluted the importance of nationalism in the political identity of Bangladesh and allowed the Islamic element of this identity to gain ascendancy. Globalization also enhanced Middle Eastern influences, both through the influx of funds from Islamic charitable organizations seeking to foster new Islamic learning and social services institutions and through migrant workers who returned from Gulf states with new ideas about the relationship between state and religion.[10]

Impact of the Caretaker Government (2007-2008)
The army takeover of January 11, 2007, was carried out in the name of cleansing the political process of both corruption and terrorism. Most Bangladeshis initially supported the Bangladesh Army's action as the only option to save the country from political disaster and a potential bloodbath. Three years later, however, the army appears to have failed to root out corruption. Indeed, Bangladeshi media has reported some cases of corruption by the military-backed civilian rulers.[11]

On the issue of terrorism, the military-backed government of 2007-2008 made notable progress, arresting and executing Islamist activists involved in terrorism. The military-backed government also commissioned a report on effective ways to address the terrorism issue. As such, the government's main thrust in handling the terrorism problem was to view it as a criminal phenomenon. This tendency has influenced the approach subsequently adopted by the Hasina government.

A less helpful legacy of the military-backed government is the precedent that it set by suspending the democratic process. This plays into one of the ideological underpinnings of extremism and terrorism, the political proposition that questions the validity of democracy and the legitimacy of popular sovereignty. Although the Bangladeshi people initially viewed the state of emergency as necessary given the rising political tensions in the country, they nevertheless welcomed the 2008 elections and the return to democracy.

The imposition of military-backed rule for 18 months has increased doubts of many Bangladeshis about civilian authority over the army. Rumors of an impending coup flourish in the country, and faith in Hasina's leadership fluctuates accordingly.

Mutiny Challenges Hasina Government
Sheikh Hasina faced the most severe challenge to her leadership in February 2009 when a mutiny in the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), one corps of the armed forces, degenerated into a massacre. The government's handling of events had the potential to create a confrontation with the military. However, it managed the crisis deftly and averted a catastrophe.

The exact circumstances that led to the mutiny on February 25-26, 2009, have not yet been fully uncovered. The BDR is a border guard force of about 67,000, led by Bangladeshi army officers. While government and military investigations have explored the events at length, many questions remain unanswered, and competing narratives are circulating in different segments of the Bangladeshi political spectrum. What is known is that BDR elements took over a portion of the Dhaka Cantonment, the main concentration of military offices and residences in the country, and made public demands for parity with the Army on benefits and promotions. By the second day, the unrest had spread to at least 12 other towns. The mutiny ended with the mutineers surrendering their arms and releasing their hostages after negotiations with the government.

No solid evidence yet indicates exactly who instigated the mutiny or whether the purpose of the mutiny went beyond the stated demands of the mutineers for higher pay and better employment benefits. The intensity of the atrocities--including the massacre of dozens of high-ranking military officers, disfiguration and dismemberment of army personnel, and rape of female family members of the officers--was clearly disproportionate to the mutineers' demands.

Several questions remain: Were the atrocities the results of miscalculations and uncontrollable excesses, or were they part of a deliberate attempt to weaken the army? If it was an attempt to weaken the army, who is behind the conspiracy? One member of Hasina's cabinet has called the mutiny a "deep-rooted conspiracy" by people intent on destabilizing the country.[12]

Islamism as an Existential Threat
The largely socialist and secular background of today's Bangladeshi cultural elite contrasts with broader society, which is growing more conservative in religious practices and mores. The reasons behind this trend are numerous. Locally, the emergence of distinct social classes and the identification of some segments of the elite with a Western way of life have triggered a reaction toward a more conservative outlook. Contributing factors include the abundance of satellite television channels that preach more dogmatic forms of the religion and the large number of Bangladeshi migrant workers returning home from Gulf states where they acquired different values. Islamists have injected themselves into this environment of greater religious conservatism, adding components of activism and intolerance.

This sociocultural dynamic is significant and needs to be monitored. Islamists do not generally state a political vision at the outset, but the socioeconomic needs of the people provide the Islamists with an opening to begin influencing the grassroots of society. Islamists engage in a bait-and-switch process, entering through a social question and then eventually promoting a political formula. In reality, their political formula is negation of the existing system. They argue that the current order is illegitimate and needs to be changed and that Islam is the solution, but leave the specifics of this solution unexplained. Still, in their relentless rejection of the current order, Islamists capitalize on and amplify the resentment toward the ruling elite. They also undermine the legitimacy of the state and question the foundations of democracy.

Bangladesh is grounded in a tradition of pluralism and its aspiration for sound democratic governance. Furthermore, indications are that Bangladeshis have become increasingly devout in their religious practices, but are uncomfortable with any notion of increased state engagement in religious affairs. However, there are some signs that Bangladeshi confidence in democratic values has receded. Islamists are actively seeking to uproot these values further, and the trend may be toward losing the pluralistic values of liberal society, unless proactive steps are taken. Radical Islamism should be treated as an existential threat to the country.

Three Types of Islamism
Islamism as a political ideology, which aims at redefining sovereignty in Islamic terms, has coalesced into three main approaches globally.[13] These approaches can be described as evolutionary, revolutionary, and opportunistic.

Evolutionary Islamism. The evolutionary model is represented in Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia by the Jamaat-e-Islami. The JI seeks to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic state, in which the people and the parliament no longer have sovereignty, but JI seeks to achieve this goal by working within the existing laws and conventions of the country.[14] The JI Islamist project proceeds incrementally from individual to family to society to state through a process of Islamization that seeks to reshape everyday life according to the Islamists' understanding of Islam.

Evolutionary Islamism is accommodating of existing systems and institutions, but operates with the underlying belief that these structures will naturally dissolve as the project moves forward. JI is willing to contest elections and assume responsibilities of government--behaving as any other political party--with the implicit conviction that this is merely a temporary framework until the Islamist ideal is realized. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is another evolutionary Islamist group.

Revolutionary Islamism. In the revolutionary model, Islamists reject the temporary compromise on principal or simply make no space to accommodate it. Instead, they choose to openly confront the existing system. The Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh follows this model.

Opportunistic Islamism. The opportunistic model, which is less prominent in global Islamism, also rejects any legitimacy outside the Islamic framework. Opportunistic Islamists do not seek an immediate open confrontation with the existing order, but instead are inclined to seed state institutions, particularly the military, with their own activists to usher in a momentous transformation when the time is right.

The Hizbut Tahrir can be called opportunistic Islamists. Any effort to counter the effects of these groups in Bangladesh needs to be informed by their global ideological context, but the idiosyncratic histories of these groups in Bangladesh may also be important in devising ways to contain them.

Jamaat-e-Islami
Jamaat-e-Islami is by far the oldest, largest, and most deeply rooted Islamist organization in Bangladesh. It has maintained a constant presence in the Bangladeshi National Parliament since the restoration of democracy in 1991, although it secured only two seats in parliament in the December 2008 elections. Its youth organization has branches nationwide and is an effective recruitment arm for the political party. Its network of social services offers impoverished constituents basic health and an invitation to political patronage. The JI has faced two main handicaps in the past few years: the revival of political interest in reexamining its role in the 1971 War of Liberation and its long-term association with the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), a political party that faced a serious setback in the most recent elections.

While it can be argued that any liberation war is also a civil war, the cultural consensus in Bangladesh is to draw a clear line between those who sought independence and those who supported the Pakistani Army's repression of the independence movement. In 1971, supporters of Pakistan as the Muslim state of the Indian subcontinent argued that the independence movement in East Pakistan was a secessionist action instigated by India to undermine the integrity and power of the Islamic state. The JI's role in supporting West Pakistan and the repressive measures of its army has since been recast by political opponents as collaboration in genocide. The JI leadership, largely due to political circumstances and military rule, has so far largely escaped being stigmatized by this accepted version of history. However, the constant threat of being tarred by these accusations indirectly helps to prevent the JI from overtly undermining democracy in Bangladesh.

From the point of view of the Awami League and its allies, the JI's active participation in the BNP government from 2001-2006 justified the invocation of the anti-JI weapon of raising the issue of the 1971 war crimes. In an attempt to court the Awami League and the left-leaning part of the political spectrum, the 2007-2008 military-backed government reintroduced the question of a special tribunal for the war criminals of 1971. Over the past few decades, the military's apparent oscillation on questions relating to the JI and the targeting of Islamists likely reflects internal divergences within the military. On the other hand, the interactions between the military and JI demonstrate the army leadership's ability to balance and manipulate the political system. During two years of military-backed rule, the army leadership seemed to explore various approaches in managing the diverse political forces, finally choosing to endorse much of the Awami League's program.

Today, having inherited the war crimes issue from the military-backed caretaker government, the Awami League finds it advantageous to raise the issue in its quest to dismantle the BNP, its opposition. Prosecution of the 1971 war crimes has limited support in some segments of Bangladeshi society, but it is widely seen as a political issue aimed primarily at discrediting the JI, rather than as a societal issue to be resolved in the interest of national reconciliation.

Supporters of holding trials view them as a means to curtail the JI's influence and as a potentially fatal blow to the organization. However, seeking to counter the JI only through the courts would be misguided. The JI, as an evolutionary Islamist group, is engaged in a generational quest to change Bangladeshi society and government. Court actions may distract it, but they are unlikely to derail its long-term project. It is noteworthy that JI's leaders consider the December 2008 elections a victory, even though its representation in parliament dwindled to just two seats. Jamaat-e-Islami representatives instead highlight the fact that JI candidates received more votes in 2008 than they did in 2001. These votes may not have translated into parliamentary seats, but they demonstrate that the party is making incremental gains in the electorate.

Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh
On August 17, 2005, the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh staged a spectacular series of coordinated bombings across the nation, detonating approximately 400 devices within the space of 45 minutes in 63 of the country's 64 districts, but killing only three people. The JMB apparently believed that this dramatic action would usher in the rise of a revolutionary Islamist insurgency. Sporadic terrorist operations followed the August bombings, further demonstrating the JMB's goals in the country. The language that the JMB used to justify its attacks was sharp, unyielding, and consistent with global jihadist discourse. The JMB argued that the Bangladesh government was corrupt and that its democratic system should be rejected.[15]

The military-backed government of 2007-2008 tried the JMB ringleaders in court and eventually executed them without taking special legal measures. Vigorous enforcement against the JMB seems to have largely curtailed the group's operations, although Bangladeshi authorities discovered a JMB-connected bomb factory in an Islamic school in the Bhola district in the spring of 2009. Local villagers had noticed suspicious activity at the school and alerted the authorities.[16] The JMB has thus far shown little ability to penetrate social environments in Bangladesh that could be tapped to sustain an insurgency. Yet the JMB's possible revival into a renewed threat to the Bangladeshi state and society cannot be ruled out, especially with international players seeking a foothold in murky Bangladeshi politics. The spectacular character of the JMB's "baptism of fire," the series of coordinated bombings, seems also to have created a well-known brand name for the group among international extremist networks, as evidenced by the group's technologically savvy presence on the Internet.

Sources in the Bangladesh government have indicated that many operational aspects of the synchronized bombings were outsourced to other insurgent groups, such as a hard-line communist insurgency that operates in Bangladeshi rural areas. However, this should be viewed as a strength, not a weakness, of the JMB. In fact, the JMB has demonstrated sophistication in its Web presence, elusive networks, and associations with unlikely partners.

Harakat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh
The Harakat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh (HuJI-B) is an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Harakat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HuJI), a pan-Islamist terrorist group that has the stated goal of combating worldwide oppression of Muslims. The HuJI originally formed to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It then focused its militant activities against India in Jammu and Kashmir throughout the 1990s, and it now fights alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan-based HuJI leader Ilyas Kashmiri has been targeted by U.S. drone missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas and was recently named by the FBI as co-conspirator in plots to attack India and Denmark.

The HuJI-B was formed under the leadership of Shafiqur Rehman in 1992 by Bangladeshi veterans of the 1980s war in Afghanistan, and it likely maintains close connections with the Pakistan-based HuJI.[17] The U.S. State Department designated HuJI-B as a foreign terrorist organization in March 2008. In late January 2010, Indian authorities reportedly arrested a HuJI-B operative who had planned to attack Hyderabad, India, on Indian Republic Day.[18]

Hizbut Tahrir
Between JI's temporary acceptance of the democratic process and the JMB and HuJI-B's unequivocal rejection is qualified coexistence with the system, as practiced by the Hizbut Tahrir (HUT). This group presents itself globally as the party of the restoration of the Caliphate, the universal Islamic state that transcends nationalities and political borders.[19] Hizbut Tahrir seeks to achieve its goal through de facto acceptance of established order in Muslim majority societies, while aggressively questioning the legitimacy of any system other than the universal Islamic state.

Globally, Hizbut Tahrir has only rarely been implicated in violent or terrorist actions, but it has been banned in Germany, Russia, Kazakhstan, and a handful of other countries. The Bangladesh government banned HUT's Bangladesh chapter after an unidentified group bombed a ruling party parliamentarian on October 21, 2009. The government said it would not punish HUT activists for past offenses, but warned them not to continue "anti-state" activities. Mohiuddin Ahmed, the HUT chief coordinator in Bangladesh and a professor at Dhaka University, was put on "forced leave indefinitely."[20]

HUT is the fifth militant organization to be outlawed in Bangladesh since 2001.[21] Previously, it was suggested that leaders in the Bangladeshi Armed Forces viewed HUT in its discipline and professional outlook as a counterproposition to the revolutionary Islamism of the JMB and similar groups.[22] However, this view ignored the potent radicalization effect of HUT. As described by former HUT members in the United Kingdom, the organization instills in its youthful recruits a sense of alienation and isolation from the wider society.[23] HUT leads its members on a path to radicalization and rejection of the established order. It is unclear whether HUT engaged directly in terrorism in Bangladesh, but it has staged intimidating demonstrations that apparently provoked people to violence.[24]

HUT originally drew the attention of the Bangladeshi authorities after a grenade attack on British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Anwar Choudhury in May 2004. Bangladeshi press reported that, two days before the incident, HUT supporters had posted anti-British and anti-U.S. posters at the shrine where Choudhury was later attacked. Although HUT may not be a force of insurgency, it is a major driver of radicalization.

What the U.S. Should Do
As Bangladesh seeks to limit the influence of radical Islamists and to prevent extremist ideologies from taking root in the country, the U.S. should:
• Assist Bangladesh in improving its democratic process. Bangladesh is an imperfect democracy. Radicalization and terrorism are directly linked to corruption and a lack of trust in the representative political process. Thus, it is important for the U.S. to help Bangladesh to engage in a long-term reform of its democratic practices and to address endemic problems, such as strong-arm politics and the perpetual rejection of electoral defeat. The Hasina government can help this process by focusing on developing a common civic sense that places nation and state ahead of party and dynastic politics.
• Urge the Bangladesh government to develop a culture of transparency that fosters accountability and restrains corruption. One way to encourage greater transparency is to require all government agencies and departments to issue periodic reports detailing their activities and disbursements of funds. Disclosure should become the norm, and withholding information should require justification. The current administrative culture of Bangladesh remains afflicted by both secrecy and ad hoc reporting. Transitioning to a more predictable, more transparent relationship with the citizenry is essential to establishing good governance.
• Support Bangladesh in strengthening and streamlining its judicial system. In Bangladesh there is a critical vacuum in the law and order system. Even secular liberal democrats do not trust the legal system. The legitimacy of the political process has largely relied on charismatic leadership, rather than strong and enduring institutions. The evolution of Bangladeshi democracy into a reliable system based on consistent laws and individual accountability remains a major challenge.
• Support Bangladesh in developing a comprehensive approach to countering extremism and terrorism. Dhaka needs to resist the temptation to view terrorism as solely a criminal issue or an imported ideology. It is a combination of the two. Bangladesh needs to recognize the importance of addressing the radicalization as more than a criminal issue.[25] For example, the main leaders of the JMB were prosecuted and executed, but the organization continues to exist and evolve. In addition to decapitating the organization, the government needs to pursue the JMB's ideological links to other organizations and individuals and work to prevent the spread of extremist ideas. The Hasina government is starting to grasp the complexity of the terrorism issue. Washington should support the Bangladesh government in adopting a comprehensive approach to dealing with the challenges posed by extremist ideologies.
• Support Bangladesh in working with other Muslim states and societies that are countering radicalism. Initiatives to counter radicalism are best conceived and implemented at the nongovernmental level, with local civil society actors assuming the primary role. While radical Islam has a global narrative, the most efficient responses to it are formulated at the local level, with regional and international counterradicalism networks providing support and sharing ideas. Bangladesh can also contribute to building up international networks to counter radicalism by sharing its own experiences of fusing local culture with Islam in a way that upholds democratic values, supports religious tolerance and pluralism, and serves as a bulwark against violent groups seeking to weaken the state.
• Support the Bangladesh government in developing a reintegration program for migrant workers returning to Bangladeshi society. Bangladeshi religious leaders should take a role in ensuring that Bangladeshi laborers returning from the Gulf region understand that there is no dichotomy between Bengali culture and the religion of Islam. Returning migrant workers from the Gulf have often been exposed to new ideas about the relationship between state and religion and/or have been influenced into thinking that Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia is somehow superior to Islam as traditionally practiced in Bangladesh. Insistence on the validity of Bengali Islam can counter the destructive impulse of reductionist Islamist ideas, the seeds of which can be planted in Bangladeshi laborers during extended stays in the Gulf.
• Encourage Bangladesh to build on the strength of its culture to offer women relative freedom and choice in both the public and the private spheres. Since independence, women, regardless of social class, have assumed important roles in Bangladeshi society and have been active participants in socioeconomic life. Confronting Islamism in the social sphere should focus on the empowerment of women as individual, productive, and full members of society, not on the type of clothing they wear. The success of microfinance programs in Bangladesh that primarily lend to women demonstrates the benefits of women's active involvement in economic life. Bangladesh should build on this success.
• Support the depoliticization of the debate surrounding radical Islam. The issue of radicalization should not be politicized for short-term gains against political opponents. Trials of the 1971 war crimes, in particular, could easily be misused for narrow political purposes, undermining a process of recovery and national reconciliation that is still lagging. The U.S. government should encourage Bangladesh to openly debate issues of national import, but discourage the parties from exploiting such issues for narrow political purposes.

Conclusion
While Bangladesh has so far met the challenges from creeping Islamist radicalization, the situation inside the country remains somewhat precarious. The local challenges in Bangladesh have been amplified by the injection of an internationally minded radicalization process. However, the assets that Bangladesh has accumulated over the past four decades remain a solid base for a potential recovery and reversal of Islamist radicalization.

The U.S. should stand ready to support local Bangladeshi actors, while recognizing that a free Bangladeshi society and democratic government must take the lead role and responsibility in meeting these challenges. #

First published by The Heritage Foundation, Washington DC on March 15, 2010

Maneeza Hossain is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation

Footnote:
Islamist Political Groups
Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami: Jamaat-e-Islami, "Maulana Motiur Rahman Nizami," at http://jamaat-e-islami.org/index.php?option=com_popup_org&Sub_Menu=PR&Info_Id=12 (February 5, 2010); Bangla2000, "Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh," at http://www.bangla2000.com/Election_2001/Manifesto_Jamaat-e-Islami.shtm (February 9, 2010); and Anis Ahmed, "Former PM Hasina Wins Landslide in Bangladesh Poll," Reuters, December 30, 2008, at http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE4BR0KL20081230 (February 24, 2010).
Islami Oikyo Jote: "Salauddin Qader on PM's India Visit: People Want to See Positive Outcome," The New Nation, January 8, 2010, at http://nation.ittefaq.com/issues/2010/01/09/news0687.htm (February 9, 2010); Ali Riaz, Faithful Education: Madrassahs in South Asia (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008), p. 159; and Swati Parashar, "Engage Bangladesh Before It Is Too Late," Asia Times, April 4, 2006, at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South _Asia/HD04Df01.html (February 24, 2010).
Islamic Democratic Party: Joyeeta Bahattacharjee, "Understanding 12 Extremist Groups of Bangladesh," Observer Research Foundation, June 7, 2009, at http://www.observerindia.com/cms/export/orfonline/modules/analysis/attachments/Bangladesh-Militant-Groups_1246945884723.pdf (January 6, 2010); Islamic Democratic Party, Dhaka City Branch, Web site, at http://www.islamicdemocraticpartydhakacitybranch.blogspot.com (February 5, 2010); U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 2009, pp. 297-298, at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/122599.pdf (December 30, 2009); and Indo-Asian News Service, "12 Militant Outfits Active in Bangladesh: Home Ministry," Thaindian News, March 17, 2009, at http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/wrld-news/12-militant-outfits-active-in-bangladesh-home-ministry_100167313.html (February 8, 2009).
Islamist Grassroots Organizations
Hizbut Tahrir: Khilafat.org, "About Us," at http://www.khilafat.org/newPages/Contact/contact.php (February 9, 2010); Hizb ut-Tahrir, "Hizb ut-Tahrir," at http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/index.php/EN/def (February 9, 2010); BBC News, "Bangladesh Islamist Group Banned," October 23, 2009, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south _asia/8321329.stm (February 8, 2010); and South Asia Terrorism Portal, "Bangladesh Timeline Year 2008," at http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/bangladesh/timeline/2008.htm (February 9, 2010).
Islami Chhatra Shibir: "24 Key Shibir Leaders 'Quit' over RU Violence," The Daily Star (Dhaka, Bangladesh), February 23, 2010; Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, "Central President's Profile," at http://shibir.org.bd/indexeng.php/organization/presidentbiography (February 24, 2010); "Rampage at RU," The Daily Star, February 10, 2010 at http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=125635 (March 2, 2010); and "Shibir, BCL Trade Gunfire on RU Campus," bdnews24.com, February 9, 2010, at http://bdnews24.com/details/php?id=153204 (February 10, 2010).
Islamist Militant Groups
Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh: Animesh Roul, "Islam-O-Muslim and the Resilience of Terrorism in Bangladesh," Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, July 27, 2009, at http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=35326 (February 9, 2010); National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, "Jamaatul Mujahedin Bangladesh," at http://www.start.umd.edu/start/data/tops/terrorist_organization_profile.asp?id=4497 (January 6, 2010); and DAWN, "Six Militants Executed in Bangladesh," March 31, 2007, at http://www.dawn.com/2007/03/31/top14.htm (February 9, 2010).
Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh: South Asia Terrorism Portal, "Jangrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh," at http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/bangladesh/terroristoutfits/JMJB.htm (February 9, 2010); National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, "Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh," at http://www.start.umd.edu/start/data/tops/terrorist_organization_profile.asp?id=4587 (December 30, 2009); and Paul Cochrane, "The Funding Methods of Bangladeshi Terrorist Groups," CTC Sentinel, Vol. 2, Issue 5 (May 2009), pp. 17-23, at http://www.ctc.usma.edu/sentinel/CTCSentinel-Vol2Iss5.pdf (February 9, 2010).
Harakat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami/Bangladesh: Chaitanya Chandra Halder and Kailash Sarkar, "Huji Founder Makes Startling Confession," The Daily Star, December 4, 2009, at http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=116253 (February 9, 2010), and U.S. Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, April 2009, pp. 297-298, at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/122599.pdf (December 30, 2009)
Shahadat-e al Hikma: Joyeeta Bahattacharjee, "Understanding 12 Extremist Groups of Bangladesh," Observer Research Foundation, June 7, 2009, at http://www.observerindia.com/cms/export/orfonline/modules/analysis/attachments/Bangladesh-Militant-Groups_1246945884723.pdf (January 6, 2010); Joyeeta Bahattacharjee, "Understanding 12 Extremist Groups of Bangladesh," Observer Research Foundation, June 7, 2009, at http://www.observerindia.com/cms/export/orfonline/modules/analysis/attachments/Bangladesh-Militant-Groups_1246945884723.pdf (January 6, 2010); and Indo-Asian News Service, "12 Militant Outfits Active in Bangladesh: Home Ministry," Thaindian News, March 17, 2009, at http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/wrld-news/12-militant-outfits-active-in-bangladesh-home-ministry_100167313.html (February 8, 2009).
Hizbut Touhid: Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, "Islamist Militancy Group Hizbut Towhid in Action in Bangladesh," American Chronicle, October 3, 2009, at http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/120840 (March 2, 2010); Joyeeta Bahattacharjee, "Understanding 12 Extremist Groups of Bangladesh," Observer Research Foundation, June 7, 2009, at http://www.observerindia.com/cms/export/orfonline/ modules/analysis/attachments/Bangladesh-Militant-Groups_1246945884723.pdf (January 6, 2010); Amanur Aman, "31 Hizb-ut Towhid Men Arrested in Kushtia," The Daily Star, April 18, 2009, at http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=84464 (February 9, 2010); South Asia Terrorism Portal, "Bangladesh Timeline Year 2009," at http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/bangladesh/timeline/2009.htm (February 10, 2010); and Indo-Asian News Service, "12 Militant Outfits Active in Bangladesh: Home Ministry," Thaindian News, March 17, 2009, at http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/wrld-news/12-militant-outfits-active-in-bangladesh-home-ministry_100167313.html (February 8, 2009).

Friday, April 09, 2010

Bangladesh's Quest for Closure

Photo: Shiekh Hasina, prime of minister of Bangladesh sitting on extreme right in a rare undated family photo (from left): eldest son Shiekh Kamal, Shiekh Rehana, Shiekh Mujibur Rahma and on his lap youngest son Shiekh Russel, wife Fajilutunessa, and son Shiekh Jamal

Can the execution of Mujib’s assassins finally deliver the country from its darkest chapter?


SALIL TRIPATHI

A QUARTER CENTURY AGO I met a man who calmly told me how he had organised the massacre of a family. He wasn’t confessing out of a sense of remorse; he was bragging about it, grinning as he spoke to me.

I was a young reporter on assignment in Dhaka, trying to figure out what had gone wrong with Bangladesh, which had emerged as an independent nation after a bloody war of liberation 15 years earlier, in 1971. The man I was interviewing lived in a well-appointed home. Soldiers protected his house, checking the bags and identification of all visitors. A week earlier he had been a presidential candidate, losing by a huge margin.

He wore a Pathani outfit that looked out of place in a country where civilian politicians wore white kurtas and black vests, and men on the streets went about in lungis. He had a thin moustache. He stared at me eagerly as we spoke, curious about the notes I was taking, trying to read what I was writing in my notepad. He sat straight on a sofa, his chest thrust forward, as if he was still in uniform. He looked like a man playing a high stakes game, assured that he would win, because he knew someone important who held all the cards.

His name was Farooq Rahman, and he had been an army major, and later, lieutenant-colonel. He had returned to Bangladesh recently, after several years in exile in Libya. Before dawn on 15 August 1975, he led the Bengal Lancers, the army’s tank unit under his command, to disarm the Rakkhi Bahini, a paramilitary force loyal to President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League party. When he left the Dhaka Cantonment, he had instructed other officers and soldiers to go to the upscale residential area of Dhanmondi, where Mujib, as he was popularly known, lived. Soon after 5:00 am, 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 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 said, before I could complete my hesitant, longwinded question.

FAROOQ RAHMAN BELIEVED he had saved the nation. The governments that followed Mujib reinforced that perception, rewarding him and the other assassins with respectability, political space, and plum diplomatic assignments. One of Mujib’s surviving daughters, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who inherited his political mantle and who was to become the prime minister of Bangladesh, was marginalised for many years. She lived for a while in exile, and for some time, was detained. The political landscape after Mujib’s murder was unstable. Bangladesh has had 11 prime ministers and over a dozen heads of state in its 39-year history. Hasina was determined to redeem her father’s reputation and seek justice, and her quest has larger implications for Bangladesh’s citizenry. Hundreds of thousands—and by some estimates perhaps three million—people were killed during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. 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. It took more than three decades for Sheikh Hasina to receive some measure of vindication.

SOMETIME IN THE AFTERNOON of 27 January this year, Mahfuz Anam received a call from an official, saying that the end was imminent. Anam was in the newsroom of Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper, The Daily Star, which he edits. He knew what the message meant: perhaps within hours, five men—Farooq, Lt-Col Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan, Lt-Col Mohiuddin Ahmed, Maj Bazlul Huda, and army lancer AKM Mohiuddin— would be hanged by the neck until dead 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 with 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.”

Once the families left, the five men were sent to their cells. They were told to take a bath and to offer their night prayers. Then the guards asked them if they wanted to eat anything special. A cleric came, offering to read from the Qu’ran. Around 10:30 pm, 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 coffins. The anti-crime unit, known as the Rapid Action Battalion, took positions 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, news editor at the online news agency, bdnews24.com, recalls: “Many media houses practically decamped en masse to the jail to ‘experience a historic moment’ firsthand.” Anam told me, “By 11:35 pm, 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 on the ground, the signal for the executioner to proceed. It was just after midnight when Huda died. Muhiuddin Ahmed was next, followed by Farooq, Shahriar, and AKM Muhiuddin. It was all over soon after 1:00 am.

Earlier that day, the 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 told bdnews24.com, “My father was a freedom fighter; and a man who fights for the independence of his country never begs for his life.”

Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was at her prime ministerial home that night. She was informed when the executions began, and 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.

The mood was sober and subdued. Dhaka residents I spoke to told me the celebrations were only in certain localities. Ahmad, who was at her news desk until late at bdnews24.com, wrote to me, saying the mood was sombre, and many looked at it as a time for reflection, although that night and the following day there was muted rejoicing in some areas. Many could understand Hasina thanking God, and other politicians welcoming the closing of a dark chapter, but some felt it a bit much that parliament itself thanked God and adjourned for the day, she said.

The chapter is not yet closed. In early February, Awami League activists ransacked and set afire the home of the brother of Aziz Pasha, one of the self-confessed conspirators who had died in exile in Zimbabwe a few years ago. Six other conspirators remain at large, and the Government says it is determined to bring them back.

CALL IT JUSTICE, REVENGE, or closure. It has taken 34 years for this particular saga to reach its end. Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmed, who took over as Bangladesh’s president after Mujib’s assassination, had granted the officers immunity and praised the assassins. General Ziaur Rahman, who later became president, confirmed the immunity. A series of articles in August 2005 were published simultaneously in The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the coup d’état that killed Mujib and much of his family. Lawrence Lifschultz, an American journalist who had been South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review in the 1970s, revealed that one of his principal sources, alleging CIA links with the political leadership of the coup, was the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Eugene Boster.

While Boster sought anonymity during his lifetime, Lifschultz disclosed after Boster’s death that the ambassador had in 1977 informed he and his colleague, the American writer, Kai Bird, that the US Embassy had contacts with the Khondaker group six months before the coup, and that the ambassador had himself ordered that all links with Khondaker and his entourage be severed. Boster claimed he learned later that behind his back the contacts continued with Khondaker’s associates until the actual day of the coup.

In their book, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution (1979), Lifschultz and Bird document Khondaker’s prior links to a failed Kissinger initiative during the 1971 war. Khondaker’s colleagues in Bangladesh’s government-in-exile had discovered his covert contacts with Kissinger, and it ended with him being placed under house arrest in Calcutta. Four years later, Khondaker—who was in Mujib’s cabinet—became president after the military coup, and once in office, he granted immunity to the assassins.

Later governments gave some of the assassins high-ranking posts, even though these men had conspired to eliminate the country’s elected leader. Lt- Col Shariful Haq Dalim represented Bangladesh in Beijing, Hong Kong, Tripoli, and became high commissioner to Kenya, even though he had attempted another coup in 1980. Lt-Col Aziz Pasha served in Rome, Nairobi, and Harare, where he sought asylum when Hasina first came to power in 1996. She removed him; he stayed on in Harare, and died there. Maj Huda was briefly a member of parliament, and also served in Islamabad and Jeddah. Other conspirators served Bangladeshi missions in Bangkok, Lagos, Dakar, Ankara, Jakarta, Tokyo, Muscat, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, Ottawa, and Manila.

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. When he returned to Bangladesh, the government facilitated him and President [Hussain Muhammad] Ershad, who wanted some candidate to stand against him in the rigged elections. [Ershad] let Farooq stand to give himself credibility.”

It was clear that a trial of the assassins would only be possible if Mujib’s party, the Awami League, came to power. That happened in 1996, and Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, became prime minister. The cases began and the court found all 12 defendants guilty. But Hasina lost the 2001 elections, and the process stopped, resuming only after her victory in the elections of December 2008. The government now wants to bring the surviving officers back to Bangladesh: Noor Chowdhury is reportedly in the United States; Dalim is in Canada; Khandaker Abdul Rashid, Farooq’s brother-in-law, is in Pakistan; MA Rashed Chowdhury is in South Africa; Mosleuddin is in Thailand; and Abdul Mazed is in Kenya. Bringing all of them back may not be easy, because they will face executions. Canada and South Africa have abolished the death penalty, and Kenya put a stop to it recently, making it harder for those governments to extradite them.

How does a nation, whose independence was soaked with blood, which lost a popular leader of its freedom struggle in a brutal massacre, reconcile with that crime? What form of justice is fair? Does the death penalty heal those wounds?

Bangladesh thinks so. It is among the 58 countries (including India) that retain the death penalty, but it applies it only in rare cases, like murder. In 2008, five people were executed in Bangladesh. Many governments oppose the death penalty on principle, and the European Union appealed to the Bangladeshi government to commute the sentence of Mujib’s assassins. The human rights group Amnesty International also sought clemency, while agreeing that the men should face justice.

Bangladeshi human rights lawyers have found it hard to challenge the death penalty because it is not controversial in Bangladesh. There are also political exigencies. One human rights activist told me, “We are against [the] death penalty but the dilemma is that we are in a country where life imprisonment really means imprisonment guaranteed until your party is in power. The death penalty is almost seen as the only way to guarantee justice for such a grisly crime.” Grisly, it certainly was. This is what happened.

IN 1975, Dhanmondi hadn’t changed much from how it looked at Independence, with roads lined with two storey houses dating back to the 1950s. 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 tinkle of the bells of the cycle rickshaws plying the roads.

On 15 August 1975, before dawn, 700 soldiers with 105 millimetre weapons left their barracks and headed for the three homes where Mujib and his family lived. Everyone was still asleep at Mujib’s home, number 677 on road 32 in Dhanmondi. Mujib’s personal assistant, Mohitul Islam, was at his desk when Mujib called him, asking him to call the police immediately. Mujib had heard his brother-in-law Abdur Rab Serniabat’s house at 27 Minto Road was being attacked. Serniabat was a minister in Mujib’s government.

Mohitul—who lived to tell the tale—tried calling the police, but the phones weren’t working. When he called the telephone exchange, the person at the other end said nothing. Mujib snatched the phone and shouted into the mouthpiece.

The guards outside were hoisting the national flag when the soldiers arrived. The guards were stunned to find army officers rushing in through the gate, ordering them to drop their weapons and surrender. There were a few shots.

A frightened servant woke up Mujib’s son Kamal, who got dressed and came down when Maj Bazlul Huda entered the house with several soldiers. Even as Mohitul tried telling Huda that it was Kamal, there was a burst of gunfire; Kamal lay dead. Huda quickly went to the landing of the staircase when he heard Mujib’s voice.

“What do you want?” Mujib asked Huda, whom he recognised.

The soldiers pulled their triggers, spraying Mujib with dozens of bullets. Before his burial the following day in his birthplace, Tungipara, the imam noticed at least ten bullets still lodged inside Mujib’s body. When I visited the house in 1986, I saw dozens of bullet marks on the wall and staircase where he was killed. Mujib had collapsed on the stairs; his trademark pipe in his hands. He was dead by the time his body stopped tumbling down the stairs.

The killers then went inside the house, and one by one, killed everyone they could find: Mujib’s wife Fajilutunessa, 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 ten-year-old son, who was crying, asking for his mother. He, too, was killed.

Around the same time, another group of soldiers had killed Mujib’s brother-in-law, Serniabat at his home, and a third group had murdered the family of Fazlul Haque Moni, Mujib’s nephew, an influential Awami League politician who lived on road 13/1, about two kilometres away from Mujib’s home. At that time, Mahfuz Anam was a young reporter at the Bangladesh Times. He lived across the Dhanmondi Lake, and had a clear view of Sheikh Moni’s house. “I saw what happened,” he recalled. “Early that morning I was awakened by the sound of firing. I got up. My room was on the side of the lake. I ventured out to the boundary wall. I saw troops enter Sheikh Moni’s house. I heard plenty of firing, followed by screaming. I heard shots—some random, some from sub-machine guns. I saw the troops leave the house. It was all over in four to six minutes. I could hear the people inside groaning; it continued for some time.”

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 at Mujib’s home. Huda told him calmly, “All are finished.”

When we met a decade after those killings, I asked Farooq, one of the leading conspirators, “And the ten-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.

They had tried killing the entire family, but they could not get Mujib’s two daughters, Hasina and Rehana, who were on a goodwill tour in Europe. Hasina was in Bonn, Germany, where her husband, MA Wazed Miah, a nuclear scientist, was a researcher at a laboratory (He died in May 2009). Kamal Hossain, Mujib’s cabinet minister, was on an official visit to Belgrade. Speaking a week after the executions of Mujib’s killers, he told me, “I first heard there had been a coup. Later, at the home of the Bangladesh Ambassador to Yugoslavia, we sat listening to French radio, and more information began coming out. We heard about Mujib’s death, then we heard about the other family members. My first thought was Hasina’s safety.” He met her in Bonn and decided to sever his relations with the new government. He handed in his official passport to the ambassador, and left for England, which had better links with Bangladesh, and where getting information would be easier. Hasina, too, decided there was no need for her to go back. She was granted asylum in India and lived in New Delhi with her husband until 1981. Hossain returned to Dhaka in 1980.

IN OCTOBER 1986, I visited Mujib’s house, the mute witness to the ghastly events of that dawn. As if to ensure that no one will forget the tragedy, Hasina, who showed me around, had made only minimal changes to the house, preserving the crime scene. The bare walls bore bullet marks. Shattered glass lay on the ground of what was once Mujib’s library. On the staircase on which Mujib was shot, and on the wall which he tried to grip for support as he fell, darkened blood stains were still visible.

Mujib was 55 when he was killed. He had been in and out of Pakistani jails, and was widely regarded—and initially revered— as Bangladesh’s founding father. At the time of Partition, what is now known as Bangladesh formed the eastern wing of Pakistan. The two parts of Pakistan were divided by thousands of kilometres of Indian territory. Islam united the two, but culture, language and the idea of nationhood divided them. The eastern half was more populous, and should legitimately have commanded greater resources, but the generals and politicians in power in the western half disregarded eastern demands, responding to eastern claims with contempt, if not repression. Punjabis dominated the Sindhis, Baluchis, and Pathans in the west, and they had even less regard for their Bengali compatriots.

Things came to a head in 1970, when in nationwide elections, Awami League secured a majority. Mujib should have been invited to become Pakistan’s prime minister, but the generals and politicians in the west thought differently. Mujib’s negotiations with Gen Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s ruler, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party which had won a large number of seats in the west, continued interminably. Meanwhile, Yahya Khan sent Gen Tikka Khan to Dhaka. Many Bangladeshis remember planeloads of young men arriving on flights from the west. They were military men but not in uniform, and they did not carry weapons. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s navy was shipping weapons through ports like Chittagong, keeping Bengali officers in the dark, and secretly arming the men who had landed in Dhaka.

The crackdown began on 25 March 1971, as the Pakistani army brutally attempted to crush Bengali aspirations. Mujib was jailed in West Pakistan. In the east, hundreds of thousands were killed, and millions of refugees made their way to India. A civil war followed, and India aided the Mukti Bahini, as Bangladeshi freedom fighters were called. In early December, Pakistan attacked India on its western front; India retaliated, and its troops defeated Pakistan on both fronts within a fortnight. Indian troops entered Dhaka, and thousands of Pakistani troops surrendered. A few weeks later Mujib returned to the Tejgaon airport. A sea of humanity greeted the leader of the new nation, Bangladesh.

Three and a half years later, Farooq and his men annihilated most of Mujib’s family. “Even dogs didn’t bark when we killed Mujib,” Farooq told me. THE SHEIKH MUJIBUR RAHMAN of 1975 was not the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of 1971. He squandered his unprecedented goodwill for two reasons. First, he could not meet the phenomenal expectations Bangladeshis had in his leadership. Lifschultz, who was based in Dhaka in 1974, remembers the day when Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, visited Bangladesh for the first time since its independence from Pakistan. As Bhutto’s motorcade moved from the airport into central Dhaka, a section of the crowd lining the street shouted, “Bhutto Zindabad (Long Live Bhutto).”

Lifschultz thought this was rather bizarre. He told me there were conflicted feelings among some Bangladeshis who in 1974 were living through the first stages of a severe famine. Clearly, some believed their hopes had been belied, but to him, the cheering of Bhutto seemed particularly perverse, given the circumstances of Bangladesh’s emergence.

BANGLADESHI FRUSTRATION with Mujib was understandable. By mid-1974, Bangladesh was reeling from a widespread famine that experts believe was at least partly due to political incompetence. Citizens were also stunned by the ostentatious weddings of Mujib’s sons at a time of economic crisis. Food distribution had failed, and people were forced to sell their farm animals to buy rice. Thousands of poor people left their villages looking for work in the cities. Irene Khan, who was until recently the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, was a schoolgirl in the early 1970s. She recalls hungry voices clamouring for food outside the gates of her family home every day.

With public criticism over the mass starvation growing, Mujib clamped down on dissent. He abolished political parties and created one national party called Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL); removed freethinking experts who did not agree with his policies; nationalised newspapers (closing most), and allowed only two each—in Bangla and in English. He stifled dissent within the party, suspended the constitution, and declared himself president. Now editor of The Daily Star, Anam calls those measures the greatest blunder Mujib made. “It is still a mystery what led him to do that. He had it all. There was nothing, nobody in the parliament opposed to his policies, except for a few voices. He was the tallest man in the country. Why did he do it? It was in total contrast to his political heritage. It was a dramatic transformation from a multiparty system to a one party state.”.

The only time I met Farooq, in 1986, he expressed outrage at those changes, “How do you pass an amendment in Parliament which abolishes party membership in just 11 minutes? No discussion nothing!” Bangladesh, in his opinion, was becoming a colony of India, and as a freedom fighter, he thought he had to stop that. “I tried to save the country,” he told me, his tone rising, “Mujib had changed the constitution so that the court could not do a thing. All power was with the president.”

None of Farooq’s explanations justified the terrible manner in which he and his family were killed, but the famine and his increasingly authoritarian rule partly explains why there was little outward expression of grief after his assassination. At the same time, it was not just Mujib’s killing, but the brutality of it, that many Bangladeshis felt justified the death penalty for the assassins.

Justice moves slowly in Bangladesh. According to a recent study, Bangladesh’s jails can hold only 27,000 prisoners, but there are some 70,000 inmates in jail, and some 47,000 are still awaiting trial, according to the inspector-general of prisons. One reason for the backlog is the shortage of judges. The other is that some defendants are too poor to afford legal help.

The trial of Mujib’s assassins falls under a different category. There was little political will to try the assassins. That changed when Hasina came to power. The five officers were sentenced to death as early as 1998. They appealed, but higher courts upheld the sentence in April 2001 and November 2009 respectively. They sought a Supreme Court review, and later, four of the five applied for presidential pardon. While the government meticulously followed the constitutional procedures, many have noted the speed with which the final appeals were dealt with.

A four-member special bench of the Supreme Court’s appellate division met at 9:25 am and issued a verdict at 9:27 am, on 26 January 2010, rejecting the review petition. Senior civil servants of the law and home ministry met at noon, and discussed the issue for three hours. Farooq, who had resisted writing his mercy petition, did so that afternoon. Officials received and dispatched his petition within minutes, as they were all in one room with colleagues whose approval was needed. A report on bdnews24.com said that President Zillur Rahman rejected the petition at 7:30 pm (the hangings occurred soon after midnight).

The quick turnaround of the documents was remarkable. One lawyer told me, “What you saw wasn’t due process; it was process with undue speed.”

THERE IS A SENSE IN DHAKA NOW, that the executions have brought the tragedy to a close. Perhaps; but many other wounds continue to fester. On the day of Mujib’s killing in 1975, the officers had also arrested Tajuddin Ahmed, Nazrul Islam, Kamaruzzaman, and Mansur Ali—four leading Awami League politicians suspected of being pro-Mujib. On the night of 3 November 1975, soldiers came to the jail, and asked for the four to be brought to one cell. The jail authorities tried to find out what was going on, when a call from the president asked them to cooperate. The soldiers then took out their weapons, and, without reading out any charges, without any trial or any authority, sprayed bullets on them, killing them instantly. Mosleuddin, involved with the 15 August killings, proudly claimed to have played a role in the jail killings. Khondaker gave the killers immunity. Some pro-Mujib officers overthrew Khondaker two days later. A counter-coup followed, and the situation was stabilised weeks later when Gen Ziaur Rahman took over, ending the pretence of civilian rule. Tajuddin’s daughter, Simeen Hossain Rimi, has compiled her father’s writings and sought justice. The government has said it will pursue that case, too.

And then there are the war crimes.

When Hasina came to power in 2008, one of her electoral promises was to seek justice for the victims of the 1971 war. Without getting into the technical debate over whether what happened in Bangladesh in 1971 was a genocide— which is a legal term with a precise meaning in international law—there is enough evidence to prove that both war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in Bangladesh. Many of those who committed those acts are still free: some live abroad, some in Pakistan and some in Bangladesh, living with the same impunity as some of Mujib’s killers did until recently. These individuals resisted an independent Bangladesh, and successive governments in Bangladesh haven’t pursued the matter. Some governments lacked the political capital and will, some had little moral authority, and some have even been complicit with some of the crimes.

That context has changed with Hasina’s recent victory. Irene Khan, who worked for many years at the UN High Commission for Refugees before leading Amnesty International, told me:

You can have debates about whether particular acts constitute war crimes or genocide. You can debate whether what happened was a war or an internal conflict. But they were crimes against humanity. There was obviously culpability and collusion of some locals with the Pakistani army. For instance, in December 1971, before the formal handover to the Indian army, there was a whole list of intellectuals who were picked up and killed. These were not political cases; these were civilians. Those crimes have remained uninvestigated; it is extremely important that there is a commission of inquiry, if Bangladesh is to put a closure to this chapter of its history. Even if you will have only a limited number of prosecutions, you need a full record of what happened.

Pakistan’s own war inquiry commission report of 1974 mentions that tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and many women were raped. Bangladeshis find that report incomplete because it barely scratches the surface of what happened.

Justice for those crimes against humanity won’t be easy. At the time of the final handover of Pakistani prisoners of war, India and Bangladesh signed a tripartite treaty with Pakistan, which effectively granted immunity to Pakistani soldiers. While Bangladesh passed a law subsequently to try war criminals, that law only focused on Bangladeshi collaborators, leaving out the Pakistani army. “That issue has always been brushed under the carpet,” Irene Khan told me. “The real question is: can an international treaty sign away the rights to justice of victims? The treaty absolves the Pakistani army and political leaders.”

Realpolitik may have prevented going after Pakistanis, and domestic politics made targeting local collaborators complicated. Hasina’s rival was Khaleda Zia, Ziaur Rahman’s widow. She led the Bangladesh National Party, which has had an electoral alliance with Jamaat-i-Islami, a fundamentalist party. Some of the Jamaat’s leaders and many followers are accused of being collaborationists.

The Bangladeshi government had said it would commence trials in March. A tribunal was expected to be set up in Dhaka by 26 March, Bangladesh’s Independence Day, but nobody has been indicted yet, no prosecutors or investigators have been appointed, and only Bangladeshi ‘collaborators’ will be tried. Some observers fear that the process will be seen as an attack on Jamaat-i-Islami. If the initial indictees are only from the Jamaat, they will claim they are being victimised, and the credibility of the process will suffer. A fair process would also investigate the conduct of the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi freedom fighters who are alleged to have committed atrocities against Urdu-speaking Biharis, many of whom supported Pakistan.

And all this, to what end? It is a people’s quest for justice; a society’s desire to break the imposed silence. It is to reassert the norms that govern a nation, to re-establish the foundations on which civilisation can rest.

Irene Khan is not sure if the recent executions will help turn the tide against the culture of impunity. “This is a systemic problem in Bangladesh,” she says. “There is impunity from the local policeman who beats up a suspected thief, to the security forces who tortured and killed suspected mutineers in interrogation cells.” She refers to the failed Bangladesh Rifles mutiny last year. Guards of Bangladesh Rifles objected to army officers commanding them, so they held officers hostage, killing many of them and ransacking the barracks, before surrendering. Hundreds of mutineers were tortured later, and over 60 died.

THE CULTURE OF IMPUNITY runs deep. Hasina may think of reaching closure for her personal grief. For millions of Bangladeshis, that remains an elusive goal. Projonmo 71 is a social movement, bringing together the children of those who died during the independence war. Staunchly Bengali in their nationalism, many of its members are secular.

Meghna Guhathakurta, an academic who taught international relations at Dhaka University and is now the director of Research Initiatives, a development think tank, is one of them.

She vividly remembers the midnight of 25 March 1971. Her father, Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, who was a professor of English at Dhaka University, was correcting examination papers. Schools and colleges were closed, as Bangladeshis had embarked on a non-cooperation movement. She feared her father would get arrested, and they had been warned.

An army convoy came to the campus. There were six apartments in the building. The soldiers began banging on the doors. An officer and two soldiers entered their ground floor apartment through the back garden. The officer asked in Urdu, “Where is the professor?” Her mother asked why they wanted to meet her husband. The officer said they had come to take him away.

“Where?” she asked. The officer did not reply.

Guhathakurta told me what followed in a calm voice:

My mother called my father. The officer asked my father if he was the professor. My father said yes. ‘We have come to take you,’ he said. Meanwhile, several other professors were being brought down. Some families tried to hold them, but we told them—‘let them go, otherwise they will shoot you.’ We turned around, and we heard the firing of guns. And we saw all of them lying in a pool of blood. Some were shouting for water. We rushed out to the front part of our compound. I saw my father lying on the ground. He was fully conscious. He told me they had asked him his name and his religion. He said he was a Hindu, and they gave orders to shoot him. My father was hit by bullets in his neck, his waist, and it left him paralysed. The soldiers had run away. We took my father to the house. We could not take him to the hospital because there was a curfew.

He remained in pain, and they could only take him to the hospital on 27 March, when the curfew was lifted. He died three days later.

I asked her about the executions of Mujib’s assassins. “I am against impunity, and I am very much happy justice has been met,” she said. “But I am not happy that we have the death penalty. Not every crime has been tried yet.”

She is a peace activist and has thought of forgiveness, but there is a moral dilemma around that idea. British writer Gillian Slovo, who was born in South Africa, had faced such a moral quandary in the years after apartheid was lifted. During apartheid, Slovo’s father, Joe, led the South African Communist Party, and he and her mother, Ruth, first lived in exile in Mozambique, from where they carried on their anti-apartheid activism. They were among the few whites to take on the South African regime (her mother had been detained without trial in 1963, and the couple fled South Africa after the African National Congress leadership was rounded up). Tragedy struck in Mozambique, when agents of apartheid sent her a letter bomb, which exploded, killing her.

Slovo ended up confronting the man responsible for sending that lethal parcel to her mother. She discovered a copy of her book, which she had autographed, had ended up with that man. I met Slovo in late 2008, soon after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and I asked her if it was possible to forgive. After all, South Africa had astounded the world with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered a non-violent way in which the oppressor and victim could resolve differences face to face. Slovo told me, “Lots of countries like truth commissions because they look at South Africa and think of the miracle. But I am not sure if it was entirely miraculous; it had its flaws, too. The commission was a compromise to stop people from fighting. People need to see if the two sides want to stop fighting first. It is impossible to otherwise start a process that goes so deep. There is a difference between individual and collective responses. South Africa’s experience reflected the thinking of an archbishop [Desmond Tutu], whose church believed in forgiveness.”

Guhathakurta had studied at a convent, and the Christian ideas of mercy were ingrained in her as a child. She was 15 when her father was murdered, and the impression of those school lessons was strong. She told me, “I remember the first thing I did was to say: I forgive those who killed my father. But in a multicultural system it doesn’t always work. Not all religions are about forgiveness. Revenge is permitted in many religions. Human beings have a primordial urge to take revenge.”

Many years later, Guhathakurta was interviewing victims of 1971 for a film. She was talking to those who escaped from killing fields, and families of people who were victims. That’s when it occurred to her: trauma never really ends. Her nightmares will always stay. She acknowledged her anger. She did not want revenge; she wanted justice. She said:

For me, justice would be when the Pakistani government realises what it did. But they have not even recognised the genocide. For me, justice means something like Berlin’s Holocaust Museum is constructed in Islamabad. I want to see signs where they say that such an event took place, and it was our fault, because we did it, and we are sorry. You can’t ask the daughter to forgive the murderer of her father. Revenge doesn’t make sense, either. Just because my father died doesn’t mean yours has to die. But recognition, that something took place, and the fact that it should not take place again— that’s justice. The Holocaust museum says it happened, therefore it can happen again.

Slovo had put it slightly differently: Real reconciliation only happens when the terrible is acknowledged, so that you can’t say it did not happen.

TOWARDS THE END of the Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s novel, Kartography, Maheen tells her niece Raheen, “Bangladesh made us see what we were capable of. No one should ever know what they are capable of. But worse, even worse, is to see it and then pretend you didn’t. The truths we conceal don’t disappear, Raheen, they appear in
different forms.”

Bangladesh abounds with victims—each family has a horror story of its own, where a loved one has been hurt grievously, and the ones who have committed those atrocities have not faced justice, nor expressed remorse. It is impossible to heal everyone. But honest accounting of what happened would be a good start. Trying Mujib’s killers, seeking the extradition of those living abroad and solving the mystery of the jail killings are useful steps in making sense of their warped politics, where individuals bragging about killing defenceless people were being rewarded.

Removing the culture of impunity will be a small step towards justice—not necessarily through death penalties, but through remorse, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Until that happens, the question Projonmo 71 left inscribed on the plaque commemorating the martyred intellectuals at Rayer Bazaar in Dhaka will continue to resound across the wounded rivers and valleys, awaiting an answer: “Tomra ja bolechhiley, bolchhey ki ta Bangladesh?” (Is Bangladesh saying what you had wanted to say?) #

First published in the CARAVAN MAGAZINE, April 1, 2010

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London, currently working on a novel set in Southeast Asia in the 1940s and 1990s. He writes journalism on economic, political and cultural issues, and over the last 18 years, he has published nearly 1,000 articles in publications in Asia, Europe and America