Saturday, June 15, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

August 21 grenade attack: The day democracy almost died

August 21 was a plot to eliminate Sheikh Hasina, the AL, and to ultimately turn Bangladesh into a one-party state

Update : 21 Aug 2022, 09:00 AM

The terror attack on an anti-terrorism rally at Bangabandhu Avenue on August 21 in 2004, which killed more than two dozen people, not only rocked the vicinity due to the impact of the grenades hurled at the event but it shook the country to its core.

The incumbent BNP-Jamaat government had to go to Plan B as the main target of the attack -- then opposition leader and Awami League President Sheikh Hasina -- narrowly escaped death, although she bears the physical consequences to this day.

The alternative plans laid bare the perfidy of the BNP-Jamaat government as the state machinery left no stone unturned to shift the blame onto others: blaming the victims for “creating a drama”, destroying all evidence quickly, refusing to register a case, and later presenting the improbable figure of small-time criminal Joj Mia as the mastermind behind the massive operation.

While the government was buying time to establish its false claims, behind the curtain it sent the real culprits out of the country to provide immunity to the attackers and thus blocking all possible ways of ensuring justice for the victims till the end of its tenure in late 2006.

August 15 redux

However, the people well understood that August 21 had been an evil plot to assassinate Hasina, nearly 20 years after the butchering of most of her family members including the sitting president and Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to wipe out the party from politics.

Bangabandhu’s untimely demise brought a pro-Pakistani, anti-India, and anti-secular government -- backed by the army’s second-in-command Major General Ziaur Rahman -- to power. Zia became the army chief within a week after the coup and protected the assassins by the passage of the Indemnity Act.

The massacre of August 15 in 1975 also led to the creation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the rehabilitation of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religion-based radical Islamist party banned by the father of the nation after independence.

The assault of August 21, however, was a sequel to the BNP-Jamaat’s master plan of consolidating power for an indefinite period by using the state machinery and harboring like-minded armed militant groups.

Grenades were hurled at the truck, from where Hasina was addressing the rally, and the surrounding areas. Hasina was saved by a human shield formed by her party colleagues and security personnel but she suffered hearing impairment due to the blasts. 

At least 24 people including Mahila Awami League chief Ivy Rahman were killed and several hundred others sustained serious injuries.

Huji and Hawa Bhaban

Apart from damaging the evidence, the masterminds also exercised their power to not let the injured people take treatment at Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

Moreover, the police refused to comply when the senior Awami League leaders wanted to file a case.

After being sentenced to death in 2018, then state minister for home affairs Lutfozzaman Babar again wanted to shift the blame onto the Bangladesh branch of Pakistan-based militant group Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (Huji) while talking to journalists from the dock. He stated that the militants wanted to annihilate Awami League for their own interests and that BNP was not involved.

But the court verdict concluded that it was an act of Huji-B in collaboration with some senior officials of the Home Ministry, police, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the National Security Intelligence, and the Prime Minister’s Office. It was learned that the intelligence officials helped Huji-B leader Maulana Tajuddin to flee to Pakistan.

The same culprits, linked to the alternative powerhouse Hawa Bhaban run by General Zia’s elder son Tarique Rahman, were involved in the smuggling of ten truckloads of arms and ammunition seized on April 2, 2004.

Spreading arms with govt help

Formed with the Afghan war veterans who also met with al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden in the late 90s, Huji-B launched operations in Bangladesh publicly in 1992, when the BNP came to power for the first time since the death of General Zia in an army coup.

Thanks to the government’s patronization, the notorious militant group soon spread its roots across the country through different means and formed bonds with different regional armed groups including the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO).

In 1999, Huji-B started armed attacks on its targets -- AL leaders, leftists, cultural activists, non-Muslims and non-Sunni people.

They attempted to assassinate then premier Hasina at Kotalipara in Gopalganj the following year by planting a 76kg bomb on the premises of Sheikh Lutfor Rahman Ideal College where she was set to address a rally on July 22, 2000. 

Law enforcers found the bomb a day before the meeting and another bomb weighing 40kg from the same place in two days.

During the same time, another al-Qaeda-backed militant group -- Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) -- emerged in Bangladesh with the help of Hawa Bhaban as its top leader Abdur Rahman, a former Jamaat leader from Jamalpur, had refused to merge with Huji-B due to ideological differences.

By August 21 in 2004, the JMB had become a mortal threat to the AL, leftists, secularists, non-Muslims and non-Sunni populations as they continued fatal attacks on these targets across the country with the support of local lawmakers, government officials and security agencies, especially in Rajshahi and Bogra regions.

At that time, Tarique Rahman’s Hawa Bhaban had extended all-out support for the JMB and Huji-B, according to Dhaka’s US embassy officials who had spoken to Tarique’s aide Babar and then principal secretary to the prime minister Kamaluddin Siddique in 2005.

Govt damaged crime scene

As a sequel to the August 21 atrocity, the perpetrators struck again after five months, killing five leaders and activists of the Awami League, including former finance minister Shah AMS Kibria, and injuring over 70 others during a rally held at Baidyer Bazar in Habiganj on January 27, 2005.

Two days before the attack, then US ambassador in Dhaka Harry K Thomas wrote to Washington that the government’s “inability or unwillingness to solve such incidents [committed in 2004] fuels speculation that the perpetrators, Islamist or otherwise, enjoy political protection”.

He made the comment after the four-party alliance government led by BNP chief Khaleda Zia had called in the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to investigate the August 21 grenade attack incident.

Khaleda also had a telephone conversation with Condoleezza Rice, the then US Secretary of State, seeking US law enforcement assistance in investigating the January 27 attack.

Awami League leaders shield Sheikh Hasina with their bodies shortly after a grenade attack on August 21, 2004 Courtesy

Thomas met Khaleda on February 7. "We're very concerned by these attacks," Khaleda told him.

She also assured Thomas her full support for an open and complete investigation to solve this "very sad" crime, and expressed a strong preference for the FBI because of its positive profile in Bangladesh.

Thomas reiterated the US government’s condemnation of the attack and the importance of getting to the bottom of the crime.

"We want to work with the BDG (Bangladesh government) to support democracy and stability, and to stop acts that benefit only the extremists," he told Khaleda Zia.

However, Ambassador Thomas evidently retained severe misgivings based on the then government's conduct following the August 21 attack. 

In a cable regarding the meeting, the ambassador wrote: "We have serious concerns given our experience after the August 21 attack, when the BDG denied ATF consultants access to key witnesses and failed to protect the crime scene from severe contamination."

Due to Washington’s bitter experience in the past in dealing with the August 21 incident, Thomas wanted to make sure that the involvement of the US law enforcement consultants in the Kibria murder probe would be meaningful.

"[T]his time, we seek clear BDG commitments that US consultants would have full access to all evidence and witnesses," he told Khaleda.

The ambassador, therefore, suggested that terms of reference be negotiated with the Home Ministry to detail the precise role and parameters of the US consultants in the investigation.

If the consultants came and were obstructed, the ambassador threatened, they would leave and the US government would be obliged to publicly explain why.

Scotland Yard, too, had a bitter experience with the investigations of the August 21 attack in Dhaka and the May 21 attack on UK High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury in Sylhet in 2004, said Thomas.

Top Brokers


Popular Links