• World

Can an Execution Help Heal Bangladesh?

5 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor

The home of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, sits down a tree-lined street in an affluent corner of the capital, Dhaka. Tourists and locals file into the compound daily to view its insides and his personal belongings — a dressing gown, old books, his favorite pipe. But they also come to see signs of his death. On Aug. 15, 1975, soldiers rushed into the house at dawn, shooting indiscriminately, killing Mujib — as he is known — and 19 others. Traces of the blood that splattered the staircase where he fell are preserved beneath panes of glass, as are bullet holes on the opposite wall. But while Bangladeshis have gathered here often over the years to mourn Mujib’s passing, it has taken more than 30 years for some of his assassins to finally face justice.

On Thursday, with the backing of the government led by Mujib’s daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh Supreme Court rejected the appeal of five former army officers convicted of killing him and participating in a coup that toppled his rule 34 years ago. They had been sentenced to death in 1996, but a change in government led to the case being stymied in court. Now, the five are to be hanged. (Seven others who were convicted in absentia in 1996 remain fugitives overseas, although one is thought to be dead.) Thousands cheered the verdict outside the court, while some lawmakers broke down in tears of triumph. “The judgment … is a new milestone for the nation,” hailed an editorial in the Daily Star, a leading Dhaka-based English-language daily.

(See pictures of Bangladesh.)

To outsiders, this celebration of a justice long deferred may seem a bit too rapturous. But it cuts at the heart of the political traumas that have plagued Bangladesh since its bloody independence from Pakistan in 1971. Mujib had been President of the new country for just four years before a coup hatched by disgruntled military officers, some of whom harbored Islamist or pro-Pakistani sentiments, led to his assassination and the installation of a military government. Since then, Bangladesh has endured a succession of army-run regimes, as well as a period of dysfunctional democratic rule marred by corruption and partisan bickering. “What you’re dealing with is a very fractured, highly politicized society,” says Ali Riaz, chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University.

The case against Mujib’s suspected killers only moved forward when his daughter Hasina rose to power in 1996 as head of the secular, center-left Awami League party he had founded. Hasina’s government lifted the legal ordinance put into place by Mujib’s usurpers that protected the coup’s conspirators. But in 2001, Hasina was ousted in an election by her bitter rival, Khaleda Zia, the widow of Ziaur Rahman, a general who ruled Bangladesh not long after Mujib’s death and who was also killed by a group of rebellious army officers. The case fell into legal limbo, and the feuding between the two women and their political parties grew so rancorous over the years that the military once again stepped in, throwing both Hasina and Zia temporarily into jail.

(Read: “Keeping Dhaka’s Ghosts Alive.”)

This time, though, the generals relented and democratic elections were held in late 2008. Hasina took office again with a massive mandate, giving many Bangladeshis hope that the country could finally put its destructive, divisive politics behind it. Years of political upheaval, analysts say, have damaged the rule of law in Bangladesh and created a culture of impunity for both powerful politicians as well as for a military that has often acted as a law unto itself. The Supreme Court verdict was a sign, says the Daily Star editorial, “that the wheels of justice have finally rolled.”

Still, much more needs to be done in a country beset by corruption and wracked by poverty. While Hasina’s government now intends to pursue the other fugitive army officers convicted of killing Mujib — they are rumored to be in countries like Libya and Zimbabwe — it has also gone about shielding some of its own leaders from charges of graft, an ominous return to past practices. More worryingly, it has done little to rein in the military, which was accused earlier this year by Human Rights Watch of participating in extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances.

(See pictures of political high tension in Zimbabwe.)

Some suggest that true stability will never exist in Bangladesh as long as an incident even older than Mujib’s assassination remains buried. When Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — split from West Pakistan in 1971, the Pakistani army embarked on a killing campaign, leaving as many as 3 million people dead. Many Bangladeshis who abetted and served alongside the West Pakistani army remained in key positions of power in the years following Mujib’s death. Now, there’s a growing call for the government to launch an inquiry into those suspected of war crimes and eventually set up tribunals. It’s unclear whether Hasina’s government will risk reopening the country’s many old wounds by ordering a fresh investigation into the killings. “Still, to make progress, you have to address the past,” says Riaz. “They have to do it for the sake of Bangladesh.”

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

See the Cartoons of the Week.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com