Dhaka: A leading US journalist, who had extensively covered Bangladesh`s coups in the 1970s, has told the High Court here that the fate of an executed 1971 Liberation War veteran had been decided by former president Zia-ur-Rahman ahead of his trial in a military court in 1976.
"I believe... that the verdict was pre-determined before the (military) Tribunal convened," said Pulitzer Prize winner US journalist Lawrence Lifschultz in a written statement to the High Court.
Lifschultz, who was the Bangladesh correspondent and subsequently the New Delhi-based South Asia correspondent of Far Eastern Economic Review in 1970s, attributed the decision of colonel Abu Taher`s hanging to the then strongman General Ziaur Rahman, who eventually became the country`s president.
Bangladesh witnessed a series of coups and counter coups since the August 15, 1975 assassination of the country`s founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
After one such coup, Taher had sided with Gen Zia along with some Army soldiers and rescued him from captivity.
But Rahman, the founder of now main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is thought to have believed that left-leaning Taher would eventually appear as an obstacle for his political ambition.
The US journalist`s comments came during a hearing on a writ filed by Taher`s family and political colleagues challenging the military law and regulations under which the military tribunal had been formed.
"There are ample grounds to overturn Taher`s so-called conviction and to vacate the verdict. Taher`s execution ought to be called not only a miscarriage of just but a crime committed by the state," read the affidavit statement placed before the court through Bangladesh`s Foreign Ministry.
Taher, a Liberation War time sector commander who subsequently appeared as a left-leaning leader on retirement from Army, was the first Bangladeshi to walk to the gallows in independent Bangladesh as he was hanged immediately after a controversial trial along with 16 others, mostly belonging to the left-leaning Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, on treason charges.
Several of the accused were handed down death penalty but none was hanged eventually, other than Taher when Army general turned politician Ziaur Rahman was in power as the then chief martial law administrator.
Lifschultz, who was personally familiar with Taher and covered his in-camera trial from outside the court, said the then Army chief of general staff, Major General Abul Manzur and two other senior Army officers had told him ahead of the trial that Rahman had already decided the fate of the 1971 veteran but they felt "powerless" to overturn the decision.
"He (Manjur) knew with absolute certainty that Zia (Ur Rahman) had decided to have Taher hanged before the so-called trial began," Lifschultz said in the statement.
Additional Attorney General MK Rahman read out the statement before the bench of judges AHM Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik and Sheikh Md Zakir Hossain yesterday.
"I was not granted an interview by Zia. This was not surprising. The General had other plans and they did not include being asked troubling questions," said Lifschultz, who also called the military tribunal a `kangaroo court`.
The military court tried and punished Taher and 16 others on July 17, 1976 and the colonel who had lost a leg in the Liberation War was executed on July 21, within four days of the verdict in defiance of the jail code that suggests that at least 21 days elapse before death penalty is executed.
"The press was shackled so that public anger at the injustice being carried out in camera would be contained. Journalists were threatened and deported. Imagine the public response, if Taher`s closing speech before the Tribunal had been published the day after he spoke?" asked Lifschultz, who was expelled from Bangladesh at the time.
Rahman later founded the BNP and remained Bangladesh`s president until 1981, when he was killed in an abortive coup apparently led by General Abul Manjur, who too was killed reportedly by angry soldiers soon after the putsch.
The High Court had earlier asked the government to submit a report on the current status and whereabouts of a controversial military tribunal, which had handed down death penalty to Taher.
The tribunal`s chief, brigadier Yusuf Haider, is dead but several former civil officials who were familiar with the situation, including one of the civilian members of the military court, have already appeared before the court in the previous weeks and said they just were helpless witnesses of the process.
Taher`s sentence sparked a wide controversy as the then chief prosecutor ATM Afzal, who later became chief justice, said he himself was surprised by the tribunal verdict as there was no provision of death penalty in military act at that time for the charge Taher was facing.