Bangladesh is likely to step up heat on two "self-confessed killers" of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and ensure their extradition to Dhaka soon after results are declared for the national election by the end of January 2024.
This theory, claim diplomatic sources in New Delhi, will work if the ruling Awami League returns to power in Bangladesh, chances of which are extremely high.
But the process is going to be tough, it is all about some top-level political manoeuvring between Bangladesh and the US and Canada, where the killers are holed up.
Would the US and Canadian laws permit people to be extradited to their home country if they are likely to face the death sentence? What is important is that the ongoing controversy between India and Canada has given Dhaka the opportunity to remind the world that one of the most wanted men in Bangladesh has eluded justice till now. And that they must return.
It is here that New Delhi could step in to help Dhaka. It has happened before and there are high chances it could happen again and New Delhi could put the heat on both Canada and the US to ensure justice for Bangladesh. It needs a mention here that a covert, joint operation between intelligence officers of India and Bangladesh led to the arrest of Abdul Mazed, a former captain of the Bangladesh army and one of the fugitives wanted for the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Mazed was arrested in April, 2020 from Mirpur, an industrial town close to Dhaka.
Political cognoscenti in the Delhi say covert operations between the two countries will be on the rise. India will need help from its neighbour to flush out insurgent leaders in north-eastern states who often cross over to Bangladesh to escape the Indian security forces.
But then, the million-dollar question is will Canada and the US now bite the silver bullet? New representations - it is reliably learnt - will be made to the US Minister of Justice Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Arif Virani, the law minister of Canada.
This will be a big diplomatic tussle between Dhaka, Washington and Ottawa.
The coup against Mujib
The assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and members of his family in a coup at their Dhanmondi bungalow on August 15, 1975 left the world shaken. Rehmani's two daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, were travelling abroad and were in Germany, hence, escaped. The coup was carried out by a coterie of middle-level Army officers.
Newspaper reports in Dhaka say four groups of soldiers led by the coup plotters entered Dhaka in the early hours of August 15, 1975. The first group entered Sheikh Mujib's house and killed him after an argument and then went on to slaughter all members of the family as well as personal staff present, including a pregnant daughter-in-law of the family.
Other groups took over the radio station, key government buildings and disarmed security forces stationed at Savar in the city. Four Awami League leaders - the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh Tajuddin Ahmed, another former PM Mansur Ali, a former Vice President Syed Nazrul Islam and former home minister AHM Qamaruzzaman - were also arrested and incarcerated in Dhaka jail, and later murdered in prison. Bangladesh marks August 15 as a national day of mourning.
But getting the fugitives from abroad will be a tough call, especially when Bangladesh supremo Sheikh Hasina would not bypass the legal route to adopt covert operations. Highly placed sources in Dhaka told this reporter that some silent, diplomatic missions were sent to flush out these assassins but the moves did not work.
Consider the case of Aziz Pasha. When the mission from Dhaka reached Harare, the then president Robert Mugabe demanded a whopping $10 million to hand over Pasha. The cash, it is reliably learnt, was sought in a charity account in Senegal run by Mugabe's daughter. The effort did not bear fruit.
And then, top Mossad officials flew to Dhaka to offer their help to extradite the assassins. Sheikh Hasina did not agree.
Tougher extradition process in US, Canada
Forty-eight long years have passed and the extradition process has become tough, sorry tougher. The two fugitive army officers have strong legal immunity. One is in the US and the other in Canada and they cannot be extradited only because of political pressure. But top ministers of the Awami League feel the two fugitive army officers who were involved in the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would eventually be brought back.
Bangladesh's Law & Justice Minister Anisul Huq was recently quoted in an interview saying that his country was negotiating a return of two killers of Sheikh Mujib - Rashed Chowdhury from the US and SHBM Noor Chowdhury from Canada. Huq did not elaborate as to what were the terms of the negotiations set by Dhaka. There is another one, Major Shariful Haque Dalim, (a principal plotter behind the killing) who shuttles between Islamabad and Nairobi and is involved in some trading business in Kenya.
Diplomatic sources in Delhi say the process is tougher because Canada has laws which do not permit a person facing a death sentence at home to be extradited. And in the US, the process of extradition is stuck in a legal process that has continued for over two decades. These are serious hurdles and can be ironed out through diplomatic channels.
"There's enough evidence available and their crime has been conclusively proven. But the countries where these three fugitives are stationed will not hand over these men unless there is some serious, global pressure. And then there are these serious legal hassles," says Prof. Veena Sikri, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh.
"The legal option is open, it is a long-drawn process," added Prof. Sikri, now representing the Ford Foundation endowed chair, Bangladesh Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia.
Dhaka has had some success with the killers of Mujib and his family. Abdul Majed, a former captain in the Bangladesh army and one of the killers, was hanged after being brought back from abroad. Ten years before that, five other convicts -- Syed Farooq Rahman, Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan, Bazlul Huda, AKM Mohiuddin Ahmed and Mohiuddin Ahmed -- were executed in January 2010, while a fifth Aziz Pasha died in Zimbabwe.
Strangely, the August 15, 1975 assassinations remain unresolved till date. On paper, it is said that the killers simply implemented a long-hatched conspiracy but the kingpins of the conspiracy have so far remained unknown to the common public. In total, 19 people lay dead, including Mujib and his wife. Such a killing-spree is unprecedented in world history.
The killers were free from remorse, as they confessed to killing in a TV interview (ITV, London) in 1976. The Daily Star of Dhaka said Colonel Rashid had the audacity to be on record saying, " I have killed Sheikh Mujib. Dare you put me on trial?"
The paper said the following: "Incidentally, it may be mentioned that a blind cleric popularly known as andha huzur, residing in Hali Shohor of Chattogram, aided and abetted this crime by teaching Rashid and his wife Zubaida Rashid the Quranic verses to facilitate the killing of Sheikh Mujib. (Anthony Mascarenhas, Bangladesh: Legacy of Blood). This cleric cannot escape his role in perpetuating the crime."
SHMB Nur Chowdhury, the convicted killer of Mujibur Rahman, has claimed innocence, saying he was not involved in the assassination. "I am innocent. I did not assassinate the then president of Bangladesh," Nur Chowdhury, now in Canada, said in a feature interview aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) some years ago. Nur told the CBC interview that he filed a petition to a Canadian court so that he is not extradited. Toronto-based Noor Chowdhury is trying to get refugee protection in Canada and is currently facing a deportation order.
The Supreme Court on November 19, 2009 upheld a High Court verdict that affirmed the trial court judgement, which sentenced Noor, along with 11 others, to death. The court also convicted Noor as the lone shooter who killed Bangabandhu. Noor, a former lieutenant colonel of Bangladesh army, has been absconding since the day the case was filed on October 2, 1996 for assassinating Sheikh Mujib and his family.
It is reliably learnt that Noor is trying to get Canadian citizenship and has recently filed a petition to a Canadian court not to deport him to Bangladesh. In the petition, he said he would be executed if the Canadian authorities extradite him. Dhaka hopes the petition will be rejected, Bangladesh is banking on Canadian law which is against the refuge-seekers who ask for shelter after committing atrocious crimes.
The London Times commented on August 16, 1975, "If Sheikh Mujib is killed so tragically, there was no need to emerge Bangladesh as a free country." On the other hand, The Bangladesh Observer of the same date, wrote as the first sentence of its editorial, "The killing of Sheikh Mujib was a historic necessity."
But such historical perspectives have no space in Bangladesh now, the killers must return, they must be repatriated from their places of hiding, say top government officials and intellectuals in Dhaka.
Future course to be decided after elections next year
"Some tremendous amount of diplomatic pressure needs to be exerted on Canada and the United States. Diplomats from Bangladesh need to travel to Pakistan and Kenya to find the fugitive former army official and ensure his repatriation," says Zayadul Ahsan Pintu, top editor of DBC, a Bangladesh news channel.
"The killers wanted to wipe out the Bangabandhu family and the upper echelon of the Awami League leadership. The killers wanted to nullify the spirit of the Liberation War and retrieve the Pakistani ethos. But a lot of political pressure needs to be built to get the killers back. It is a tough call, very tough call," says Ahsan Pintu. Some in Dhaka say Bangladesh should have set up a high-powered commission to look into the conspiracy, conspirators, (both home and foreign), the killing and killers.
Padma Shri Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Qazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, a highly decorated officer who served in the Bangladesh Army, recently told a news channel that the Sheikh Hasina government has made all the efforts: through requests, diplomatic channels and meetings at the highest level. "But all our requests evoked the same reply from Canada. Chowdhury will receive capital punishment in Bangladesh and there is nothing called capital punishment in Canadian courts. Is it too much to ask for justice, when the killers themselves have admitted to their crime?" said Lt Col (Retd) Zahir.
All eyes on the elections in Bangladesh next year.
(Shantanu Guha Ray is the Asia Editor of Central European News, UK. His book on the Indian coal market, Black Harvest, will hit the stands soon.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.