Dubbed as “cool headed” murderer by the apex court, a military officer not only usurped state power through bloodshed but also killed freedom fighters afterwards.
In October 1977, some rebellions hijacked a Japanese plane and landed in Dhaka airport. None of Bangladeshi army was involved in the incident. But, on the pretext, Ziaur Rahman killed hundreds of freedom fighter-soldiers and pilots through sham trial. Ziaur Rahman concealed the bodies and destroyed related documents and so the exact number of victims is still unknown. However, it is learnt from the accounts of relatives that around 1,500 freedom fighters were hanged.
As Pintu was investigating into the killings committed by Ziaur Rahman in 1977, he published series articles in daily Bhorer Kagoj in 1997. As a result, relatives of many victims and affected family members contacted him and shared information. Later, Pintu published two books Rohossomoy Obvuthan (Mysterious Coups) and Gono Fashi (Mass Execution) in 2008 and 2015 respectively. The books were sold like hotcakes. In August 2022, he published another book titled “Rokto Pichchil Ondhokar (Blood Soaked Darkness). This book is enriched with more information and pictures. He published photos of hanged people collected from relatives of the victims. In the preamble, he claimed to have interviewed more than 100 people to dig out the hidden truth. The interviewees include the then air chief Air Marshal AG Mahmud, Lt Gen Mir Shawkat Ali, Brig Gen Shafi Mehbub, Lt Gen HM Ershad, former Japanese state minister for transport Hajime Ishii, some chairmen of the military tribunal, the then IG (prisons) Liakat Ali Khan, former hangman of Dhaka Central Jail Ershadur Rahman, noted journalist Lawrence Lifschultz, and successors of more than hanged freedom fighters. Pintu said he moved to every parts of the country in pursuit of the information. His book published the photo of the then gravedigger of Azimpur graveyard Din Islam. The military regime threatened gravedigger not to disclose burial of the victims of the mass execution. The gravediggers and workers used to discuss and asked one another from where the bodies came.
According to Din Islam, the execution in Dhaka Central Jail and burial in Azimpur took place from October 9 to 30, 1977. Military ruler imposed curfew from 10pm to 5am.
A number of 121 people were reportedly hanged inside Dhaka Central Jail at that time. As the number increased gradually, 72 people were hanged in Cumilla jail from October 29, 1977 to January 27, 1978.
Ziaur Rahman staged a drama to execute the freedom fighters. Many officials loyal to Zia admitted that the execution of the people took place through sham trial. Zia moved to eliminate his opponents from the military resorting to coup drama. Replying to a query, Lt Gen Mir Shawkat Ali told Pintu that trial and execution of hundreds of officers and soldiers in the name of coup seemed mysterious to him. Brig Shafi Mehbub, the then ADC to Gen Shawkat Ali, said his boss (Shawkat Ali) seemed inactive in the wake of mass execution. He was just a silent flute player.”
Gen HM Ershad also termed military tribunals as kangaroo courts. In letter to JP leaders, Ershad said, “Zia executed 500 soldiers… Zia executed the killings prior to my CAS…Every trial was completed within 5 minutes. People should know it.” Pintu published the secret letter in his book.
Echoing similar view, another chief of controversial military tribunal told Pintu “I am still haunted by the memories of illegal judgment. In fact, Ziaur Rahman used to decide the verdicts. Zia took the whole authority by amending Martial Law Tribunal Regulation. Even, Army Headquarters used to make phone call to prisons authority to hang the specific convicts.”
A retired officer of Air Force said “Martial Law tribunals under Ziaur Rahman used to take less than a minute to determine fate of a soldier.”
Former air chief AG Mahmud and Zia’s course mate Lt Col MA Hamid unanimously dubbed the functions of the infamous tribunals as sham trial.
In 1978, Washington Post quoting a message sent by US chargé d' affaires Alfred Bergesen to State Department on January 19 wrote that probably 30-40 persons were killed before constitution of the military tribunals. Later, Sunday Times published similar report based on message of the US chargé d' affaires which corroborates the accounts of the Dhaka journalists. They said Zia loyalist military killed many people before taking them to tribunals. The renowned international newspaper reported on March 5, 1978 that more than 800 military officials were convicted of an incident. Around 600 convicts were executed in firing squad, the daily said, quoting army high-ups. Pintu’s book published copies of reports of the New York Times and Washington Post.
The writer mentioned that Zia regime started to hang opponents from the very night ISPR announced constitution of military tribunals. He also claimed hundreds of Army and Air Force officials were arrested on charge of coup. Many of them were hanged through sham trial curtailing rights to self defence.
Although a commission headed by Justice Ahsanuddin Chowdhury was formed on October 26, 1977, Ziaur Rahman rejected report of it. Pintu pointed out a farce that execution of the convicts was almost complete when commission was formed. The total number of executions was unknown till then. Zia’s close associate Barrister Moudud Ahmed and Gen HM Ershad also claimed important documents of the trial and execution were destroyed. Quoting statements of the then Deputy Super of Dhaka Central Jail Liakat Ali Khan, Pintu writes, “Hangman executes death-row convicts. DIG Prisons just remained present and gives green signal. Deputy Super Liakat Ali had to take responsibility from the second night as the then DIG (Prisons) Fayez Ahmed Chowdhury was shocked at the incidents of the first night. Fayez Ahmed was unable to discharge duty amid indiscriminate dragging of huge people to the gallows.”
“Around 8-10 people were being hanged very night. Many of the executed people were freedom fighters.”
According to Pintu, the mass execution started from November 9, 1977 and it continued for two months. There was no way of knowing as to how many people were executed. It is learnt from various sources that the figure may range between 1,100 and 1,400. The victims were subjected to miscarriage of justice. Huge number of people had to sacrifice lives. Many of the Zia opponents were killed in torture cell while many through kangaroo courts. It is yet unknown as to how many tribunals were formed to carry out the inhuman activities. It was farce in the name of justice as the tribunal used to read out judgments written by Ziaur Rahman. All these crimes were committed beyond public notice.
Pintu writes “When I face the children of the 1977 victims not aware of my book, they want to know whereabouts of their fathers. It creates an impression that constitution of tribunals and trial were just eyewash and purported to avenge the soldiers.”
If ISPR statement is taken for granted, 460 people received death sentences from October 7 to 17. It means the tribunals finished trials of 46 persons per day.”
The document of Dhaka central jail shows that 113 military freedom fighters were executed. In 11 working days, the tribunal sentenced 193 people to death. In his book, Pintu said he talked to the judges of the tribunals to know about trial procedure. It is learnt from the statements of the judges that the tribunal proceedings were marked by grievance and aspersion. Wife of hanged Sergeant Tofazzal Hossain said “On December 28, she received a letter from record office of the Air Force.” Quoting letter, his wife said “He has been convicted of the incident of October 1 and 2. Handing down sentence, military tribunal sent him to jail. Any update will be informed on time.” His wife received no further letter. Jail document shows that he was hanged on October 10, much earlier than the letter was sent to his wife. It is learnt from research of Pintu that many convicts were not aware of the charge against them. The death-row convicts were either hanged the same night they knew the tribunal’s order or the following night. Many families came to know 2 months after the executions.
A melancholy atmosphere engulfed the prison due to crying of the inmates in every night of October-November, 1977. The military guided prisons authority expedited the hanging to such an extent that they took a wrong person to the gallows instead of actual convict breaking serial. The people were drugged to the Manila rope like animals. It is learnt that Ziaur Rahman used to favour Pakistan repatriated army officials. On November 25, the then US ambassador in a letter informed his country of several thousands of political prisoners in Bangladesh jails. As the ambassador wanted to know about release of the prisoners, Zia distorted the figure as several hundreds. Formed during liberation war, the small Air Force became targeted by Zia. The military ruler decided to abolish the Air Force. Lt Gen Mir Shawkat Ali said Gen Zia decided to abolish the Air Force and vest on Army Aviation Corps. So, Air Force was inactive for two months. However, Ziaur Rahman changed such decision later. The Air Force became weal losing hundreds of aerial combatants. AG Mahmud admitted that he became a toothless tiger following trial of force members bypassing him, as he was not made involved in the trial; he was dysfunctional as force chief. Zia lost confidence in AG Mahmud who quitted the post after two months.
The book published interviews of many affected family members. One of interviewees includes Md Kamruzzaman Miah Lenin, son of Sergeant Saidur Rahman. Lenin said “Father went to office and never returned. After 7-8 days, father sent a letter from jail.” Quoting father’s letter, Lenin said “I don’t know anything, but they (military regime) arrested and confined me.”
Lenin is associated with “Mayer Kanna”, an organisation of families of army members who were victims of killings and disappearances in 1977. The organisation has been demanding posthumous trial of Ziaur Rahman, relocation of grave of Zia from Parliament Complex area to elsewhere, information on the dates of execution, whereabouts of the bodies and other particulars. Violating the provision, Zia did not hand over bodies to the family members. The people were hanged in 1977 but the killers concealed it for many years and destroyed documents. But the truth was unveiled in 1996 when Pintu started to write on it in Bhorer Kagoj. He disclosed names of some soldiers hanged in Dhaka, Cumilla and Bogura jails and dates of hangings.
The book focused on such unknown incidents and pictures which are important for the nation to know. It is invaluable document for the future researchers of atrocities of Ziaur Rahman. If the state forms any inquiry commission, the book will be helpful. The writer deserves appreciation for the information and pictures collected through decades of efforts.
The writer is former Justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
Translated by M Firoz Al mamun