As Bangladesh is deep in electioneering mode for the next parliamentary elections due shortly, a Dhaka tribunal probing the deadly grenade attack on Sheikh Hasina and her party workers awarded a landmark judgment on October 10 sending shock waves among the guilty and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leadership and its cadres.
BNP in partnership with Jamaat e Islami (JeI) was in power at the time of this violent occurrence on 21 August 2004. The dastardly attack killed as many as 24 innocent people and wounded many including Hasina who is believed to have developed hearing impairment following the loud explosions.
And, as always held by the Awami League (AL), it was the ruling BNP which masterminded the lethal attack on an AL rally specifically targeting Sheikh Hasina. Crucially, the judgment pronounced death sentences to 19 including then high profile state home minister Lutfozzaman Babar and deputy minister Abdus Salam Pinto. Similarly, 19 others found guilty in the grenade attack have been given life sentences. The most important of them is Tarek Rahman (son of Khaleda Zia), the party supremo operating from London and party strongman Harris Chowdhry.
These significant verdicts were delivered by Justice Shaheed Nuruddin of the Special Tribunal. The judgment has named several top functionaries of the then BNP government and those convicted include leading retired military and police and intelligence officials.
Some of those sentenced include retired Maj Gen Rezakul Haidar Chowdhry, then Director General of National Security and Intelligence (NSI), Brigadier (retired) Abdur Rahim, Lt Cdr (retired) Saiful Islam Duke and three Inspectors General of Police, Ashraful Huda, Khoda Bux Chowdhry and Shahudul Haq. Point not to be missed here is such high-level police and military involvement in a government-inspired attack on Hasina and her activists perceived to be pro-India and liberal.
The grenades used were military linked and used either by the armed forces or terrorists. By implication, therefore, government involvement was clear. More disturbingly, the dreaded terrorist outfit Harkat ul Jihad (HuJ), Bangladesh carried out the misadventure at the behest of BNP, Khaleda and Tarek in conjunction with the official machinery. The unholy nexus between BNP, the JeI and the terrorists acted in concert to stifle progressive forces.
HuJ, which came into being in April 1992, is known to comprise veterans who had participated with Taliban in Afghanistan and were well trained to perpetrate terror-linked actions. Hence a terror outfit was equally a major player in the scheme of things to target Hasina. Also, HuJ had strong terror connections with Pakistan. It circumstantially, therefore, gives a clear picture of the whole blueprint. However, HuJ is now considerably weakened as its leader and the terror attack mastermind Mufti Hannan was executed last year.
Amongst those convicted, there are several who are fugitives now. They are Tareq Rahman, Harris Choudhry, Maulana Tajuddin and six military and police officials.
Now that sentences have been awarded, what’s the task at hand for the present Bangladesh government? The first action might be for the prosecution to file an appeal in the High Court seeking to ensure that Tarik Rahman’s life sentence is changed to death. Second may be a robust diplomatic initiative seeking extradition of Tareq to Bangladesh to face arrest and legal action. Because of this judgment with far-reaching consequences, BNP is unlikely to field its candidates in the election fray or organise protest rallies. Experts feel the judgment has taken the wind out of BNP’s sails. Tareq is rendered dysfunctional to contest polls.
Now that the Awami League stands unrivalled in the forthcoming elections, the government should be prepared to hear scathing criticism from its detractors, specially from Western politicians and media who are likely to leave no stone unturned in alleging that the trial was biased and unfair. Hasina is not expected to be bothered by such castigations as she has come a long way in conducting trials and executing those involved in crimes against humanity. The most dreaded collaborators with the occupied forces were not spared and law of the land prevailed. Her determination has got the better of all odds. The timing of the Special Tribunal’s sentence, almost coinciding with the elections, may, however, arouse speculation and some degree of suspicion.
Government and the ruling party should discreetly watch the developments as the judgment may have stirred the hornet’s nest.
Prior to its pronouncement, Tareq Rahman released a video showing him addressing the nation in a Bangla. He tried to convey through his body language that all was under control. His address was clearly an attempt to preempt the judgment by wooing Bangladeshis at home and abroad. He also took the opportunity of vehemently criticising Hasina for herself staging the 2004 grenade attack. Tareq also tried to revive his father’s memory projecting him as a freedom fighter who sacrificed his life for the nation.
Against the backdrop of these happenings, all rhetoric and political statecraft seem to be played in full throttle making the election campaign exciting but fraught with risk.
Meanwhile, non acceptance on part of Bangladesh of the High Commissioner designate from Pakistan to Dhaka has led to a diplomatic stalemate with Islamabad. The post has been lying vacant since March 2017 and the sudden push by Pakistan before the coming elections was subtly avoided by the host country lest the elections are interfered with. Till such time, the High Commisioner designate, Saqlain Syedah has to cool her heels.
Impact of the judgment is profound and calls for close monitoring by India as well to forestall any disturbing developments threatening Hasina and her plans to retain the liberal and secular fabric in Bangladesh.
The writer is a security analyst who served in Dhaka. Views expressed are personal.