In the annals of Bangladesh’s history, the shadows of tragedy have cast a pall over the nation’s spirit. The echoes of November 3, 1975, still reverberate through time, marking a dark chapter that altered the course of the young nation’s trajectory. On that fateful day, four uncompromising national leaders—Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, Captain Mansur Ali, and AHM Quamruzzaman—were ruthlessly assassinated inside the Dhaka Central Jail, a brutality that has left an indelible scar on the collective consciousness of Bangladesh.
The recent pronouncement by the Supreme Court, on April 30, 2023, delivered a semblance of justice, albeit belated, by handing down capital punishment to three ex-army personnel and life sentences to 12 others directly implicated in the heinous act. However, this verdict, though a source of consolation for the families of the victims, is haunted by the specter of impunity. The killers, including Risalder (retd) Muslemuddin, Dafadar (dismissed) Marfat Ali Shah, and Dafadar (dismissed) Abdul Hashem Mridha, remain elusive, scattered across the globe, shielded by the passage of time.
Former US Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat once remarked on the pervasive culture of impunity, shedding light on the challenges faced by the government in bringing fugitive killers to justice. She officially informed Dhaka that one of the convicts, Rashed Chowdhury, had secured political asylum in the US. Another convicted killer, Noor Chowdhury, was identified in Canada, though the country declined to deport him, citing its policy against sending individuals to jurisdictions with a provision for the death penalty.
The painstaking efforts of a government taskforce, initiated in 2010, have encountered obstacles in locating and repatriating the absconding killers. The taskforce has confirmed the presence of Noor Chowdhury in Canada but remains uncertain about the whereabouts of other fugitives who are perpetually on the move.
The 2004 verdict, which initially awarded gallows to Muslemuddin, Marfat Ali Shah, and Abdul Hashem Mridha, was criticized as a farce by family members of the slain leaders. The subsequent High Court ruling in 2008 upheld the capital punishment of Muslemuddin but acquitted Marfat and Hashem. The complexity of legal proceedings has added layers to the anguish of the families, leaving them grappling with a justice system that seems both elusive and imperfect.
Ferdous Momtaz Poly, the daughter of AHM Quamruzzaman, expressed a sentiment shared by many when she said, “We can at least see justice in the end, does not matter if the judgment is executable or not. The verdict will satisfy us if implemented.” The legacy of the uncompromising leaders, who played pivotal roles in the formation of the Mujibnagar government during the Liberation War of 1971, deserves a resolution that transcends the boundaries of political expediency.
The jail killings were not isolated incidents but part of a sinister plot orchestrated by anti-independence forces that sought to undermine the nascent democracy of Bangladesh. The assassinations on November 3, 1975, followed the brutal murder of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family on August 15, 1975. This orchestrated campaign of violence aimed at eliminating key figures from the Liberation War era and dismantling the very foundations of Bangladesh’s fledgling democracy.
Khondoker Mustaque Ahmad, along with two killers of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—Colonel (retd) Syed Faruque Rahman and Lieutenant Colonel (retd) Khondoker Abdur Rashid—played a pivotal role in designing the heinous killing spree of the four national leaders inside the jail. A five-member killing squad, led by Resalder Musleh Uddin, executed the sinister plot, leaving an irreparable void in the nation’s leadership.
Former BNP leader KM Obaidur, Shah Moazzem Hossain, Nurul Islam Monzoor, Taheruddin Thakur, and the then additional foreign secretary Khairuzzaman, who managed bail soon after the BNP-led four-party coalition came to power, were relieved of the charges in 2004. Their acquittal exacerbated the anguish of the families and added a layer of bitterness to the quest for justice.
The political landscape of Bangladesh has been deeply scarred by these tragic events. The trial of the jail killings was initiated during the Awami League government’s tenure, only to face obstacles when the BNP-led government assumed power in 2001. The oscillation between political forces created a protracted legal battle, impacting the pursuit of justice for decades.
The Supreme Court’s verdict in 2013, upholding the death penalty for three former army personnel and life imprisonment for eight others, marked a crucial juncture in the quest for justice. However, the challenges persisted as the international community became a refuge for fugitive killers, complicating the process of bringing them back to face justice.
Amidst the challenges, the nation observes the 48th anniversary of the Jail Killing Day, a solemn occasion to reflect on the sacrifices of Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, Captain Mansur Ali, and AHM Quamruzzaman. Their roles in leading the country’s Liberation War were foundational to the birth of Bangladesh. The day serves as a poignant reminder of the brutality inflicted upon these heroes who dared to dream of a free and independent nation.
In the wake of the recent developments, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal’s assurance that the fugitive killers will be brought back and executed offers a glimmer of hope. The acknowledgment of a larger conspiracy behind the assassinations underscores the gravity of the crimes committed against the nation’s leadership.
As Bangladesh navigates the complex terrain of justice and reconciliation, the scars of the jail killings remain etched in the national psyche. The pursuit of justice is not merely a legal endeavor but a collective responsibility to honor the sacrifices of those who laid down their lives for the freedom and sovereignty of Bangladesh. The narratives of the families, the legal battles, and the geopolitical challenges intertwine to form a tapestry of resilience against the forces of extremism and impunity.
In the ongoing quest for justice, Bangladesh stands at a crossroads. The resolution of the jail killings case is not just a legal formality; it is a reckoning with the ghosts of the past, a testament to the resilience of a nation that refuses to forget its heroes. The 48-year journey has been one of tribulations and triumphs, and as the nation commemorates the Jail Killing Day, the call for justice resonates louder than ever—a call that transcends time and beckons towards a future where impunity finds no refuge, and the sacrifices of the four national leaders stand as an enduring beacon for generations to come.
Dr. Mohammed Faruque
CEO & Chairman, Orchard Group & Advisor, Diplomats Publication