CANADA’S NEW high commissioner to Bangladesh has sparked a controversy in the Asian nation after stating bluntly that Canada can’t extradite the alleged assassin of Bangladesh’s founding president because he could face the death penalty in his home country.
The incident has rekindled a long-running dispute between Canada and Bangladesh, during which Bangladeshi officials have at times accused Canada of giving refuge to the most wanted fugitive in the 40-year history of their country — Toronto resident Noor Chowdhury, now 61.
The controversial comments to Bangladeshi media by Canadian diplomat Heather Cruden, who was appointed Sept. 30 to the high commissioner’s post in the capital city of Dhaka, followed an introductory meeting last week with the country’s foreign minister, Dipu Moni.
During the meeting, according to a statement issued by the foreign minister’s office, Moni had pressed Cruden to facilitate Canada’s handover of the “self-confessed killer” Chowdhury, a former Bangladeshi military officer who, in 1998, was convicted in absentia in the August 1975 killing of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheik Mujibur Rahman.
Rahman, affectionately titled Bangbandhu or “Friend of Bengal” by supporters during and after his life, is viewed as the patriarch of Bangladesh for his central role in the country’s birth after it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 through an armed struggle.
“Emphasizing the importance of ending the long lasting culture of immunity and impunity and ensuring justice, Dr. Dipu Moni reiterated the call for deportation from Canada the convicted killer of Bangbandhu, Noor Chowdhury,” the foreign ministry statement said. “A country like Canada, which follows the same common law as Bangladesh does, cannot be a safe haven for a self-confessed killer who committed the most gruesome crime.”
But after her meeting with Moni, Cruden was quoted in Bangladeshi press reports stating firmly — apparently for the first time in public — that Canada will not expel any suspected criminal to face a possible execution abroad.
“Our government has a clear policy that we cannot extradite people to a country where there is death sentence,” she told reporters in Dhaka. “The foreign minister raised the issue and I will again raise the issue with my government.”
Media coverage of Cruden’s comments prompted Moni’s office to issue another statement within hours, contradicting the message that the two countries had reached a permanent impasse on the question of Chowdhury’s fate.
Without directly objecting to Cruden’s interpretation of the meeting, the ministry said press coverage of Cruden’s comments “did not reflect accurately the discussions held between the foreign minister and the high commissioner on the issue.”
The statement added that, “Bangladesh has been in constant and deep engagement with Canada on the issue of deportation of Noor Chowdhury.” And it noted that while Dhaka was “cognizant of the legal considerations involved on Canada’s part regarding any individual convicted with death sentence,” the Bangladeshi government “believes that this is an ongoing process which is in progress.”
Rahman was shot dead at his compound in Dhaka on Aug. 15, 1975, during a bloody coup known to have been orchestrated by renegade military officers. Several other members of the leader’s family — including his wife and three sons — were also murdered.
Rahman’s daughter, Sheik Hasina Wajed, escaped death in the massacre because she was travelling in Europe at the time. Now she’s Bangladesh’s prime minister, and has vowed to bring those who killed her father and other family members to justice.
Canada’s fears about returning Chowdhury to a possible death sentence in Bangladesh appear to be well-founded. In January 2010 — less that a year after Wajed was elected for a second time to lead Bangladesh’s government — five of the 12 men convicted with Chowdhury of assassinating Rahman were hanged in Dhaka.
Chowdhury, whose first name is sometimes spelled “Nur,” served as a Bangladeshi diplomat in the years following the 1975 overthrow of the Rahman regime. He fled Bangladesh for Canada in 1996 after Wajed and her late father’s allies first regained power in the politically volatile country.
Though thwarted in his efforts to gain refugee status in Canada and facing a deportation order, Chowdhury has avoided expulsion from this country for nearly a decade because of Canada’s legal obligation — the result of a 2001 Supreme Court ruling — not to deport or extradite suspected criminals who may face execution in another country, except in the most “exceptional” circumstances.
Chowdhury — who reportedly lives a quiet life in an Etobicoke condominium — attended his first refugee hearing in Canada in 1999, and has faced a string of defeats beginning in 2002, when his application was initially denied, court records show.
He was again denied in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
But Chowdhury has not been sent back to Bangladesh by Canadian authorities because of the prospect of execution, Canada’s own abolition of capital punishment in 1976 and subsequent court rulings forbidding this country from extraditing individuals in capital cases without first receiving assurances from foreign authorities that the death penalty will not be imposed.
According to a 2004 fax message contained in Federal Court of Canada filings for the Chowdhury case, Interpol Ottawa told Canada Border Services Agency that some day, “if there’s a change of policy in Canada or Bangladesh regarding the sentencing, the subject may be extradited then.”
But there is clearly strong pressure on Moni and other senior Bangladeshi ministers — particularly with Wajed in power — to convince Canada to extradite Chowdhury over his alleged role in the assassination 36 years ago.
Chowdhury was sentenced to death by firing squad on Nov. 8, 1998 along with 14 other alleged plotters of the assassination and coup — two of whom, also living in Canada at the time, were later exonerated.
Chowdhury, in fact, was accused of personally killing Rahman with a sub-machine gun, Canadian court records show.
According to allegations contained in Federal Court documents, Chowdhury and a group of army officers carried out the killings on Aug. 15 after planning the attack in May.
On the morning of the killings, the plotters packed into a truck and headed for the presidential residence, according to an Interpol summary of the allegations. When the shooting ended, Rahman, his wife, three sons — including a 10-year-old boy — two daughters-in-law, a brother and several security officers lay dead, the document states.
Chowdhury, however, has repeatedly denied the charges during his refugee hearings in Canada. He has claimed he was visiting the woman who later became his wife, helping her brother finish a rush order of T-shirts to be used in a rally supporting Rahman, court records show.
He has said the justice system in Bangladesh is rigged against him and that he was the victim of a “personal grudge” held by Wajed against anyone considered a political opponent of her father and herself.
She and her allies “see (Chowdhury) as their historical enemy because they believe that he was among those that kept them from power for two decades,” one of the court documents states.
As early as 1999, Aminul Islam, Bangladesh’s then-high commissioner to Canada, urged the Liberal government of Jean Chretien to deport Chowdhury and the two other alleged assassins — both of whom were later exonerated.
“Murders and assassinations must not go unpunished,’’ Islam said at the time. “We have requested that the killers be returned to Bangladesh for the sake of justice and for the sake of international law. They have been tried in Bangladesh and they have been found guilty.”
In July this year, Bangladeshi law minister Shafique Ahmed — who has travelled to Canada to lobby for Chowdhury’s extradition — suggested the planned return of the fugitive to Bangladesh was imminent, telling reporters the case is in “the final stage in a Canada court. He’ll be brought back once the issue is resolved.”
First published in The National Post, Canada, December 7, 2011