The 2004 attack, allegedly launched by Islamist militants and orchestrated by some high-level officials of the then BNP-led government, was meant to annihilate the main leaders of the then opposition Awami League
After 14 years of investigations and trials, the long-awaited verdicts in the August 21 grenade attack cases are due to be delivered today by a special court in Dhaka.
The 2004 attack, allegedly launched by Islamist militants and orchestrated by some high-level officials of the then BNP-led government, was meant to annihilate the main leaders of the then opposition Awami League.
Awami League President Sheikh Hasina was the prime target, but she narrowly escaped death as her fellow leaders swiftly enclosed her in a human shield on the truck she was using as a makeshift stage.
The attackers then opened fire on Hasina’s vehicle while she was fleeing the scene.
While Hasina escaped the attack with only partial hearing loss, 24 others were not so lucky, including the then women affairs secretary, Ivy Rahman. Hundreds of other people who attended the rally in Dhaka’s Bangabandhu Avenue were injured by grenade splinters.
Sheikh Hasina’s account of the incident
As a witness in the cases, Sheikh Hasina described what happened around her that day.
She said that her party held the rally to protest a grenade attack on the then British high commissioner, and the killing of a student in Gopalganj.
The party had applied to the authorities for permission to hold the rally at Muktangan, but as they did not get a permit until the morning of August 20, the venue was shifted to the front of the Awami League office at 23 Bangabandhu Avenue.
Listed as the final speaker of the day, Sheikh Hasina started for the rally from her Dhanmondi residence Sudha Sadan around 4:30pm.
Around 5:20pm, after finishing her speech with her party’s signature “Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu” rallying cry, Sheikh Hasina’s move to get off the truck was halted by photojournalists requesting a photo.
At that moment, a grenade exploded right beside the stage, sending the crowd into a state of chaos. Immediately, the leaders on the truck made a human shield to protect her as at least 12 more grenades landed in the next two minutes.
Amid the blasts, her security personnel initially failed to get her off the truck and into her bulletproof sports utility vehicle (SUV), but managed to do so on the second attempt.
During the incident, members of her protection team from the Special Branch of police tried to retaliate against the attackers so she could get to safety, but the police team was reluctant to do so.
Rather, when her vehicle was heading towards Zero Point, some policemen fired tear gas shells and shotguns to interrupt its movement.
How Sheikh Hasina’s life was saved
While Sheikh Hasina made her escape, the assailants fired at the SUV, but missed.
Party leaders, security personnel, and the bullet-proof SUV saved her life on that fateful day.
Following the incident, officials from FBI and Interpol came to Bangladesh, and Interpol member Fredy Brad Ford submitted a summary report of the investigation to his office on November 15, 2004, which has been presented in the charge sheet.
According to the report, Sheikh Hasina finished speaking around 5:20pm and announced that the procession would start from Zero Point. At this point, Hasina’s vehicle was parked close to the truck she was on.
At that moment, the first blast occurred between the truck and her vehicle. The grenade barely missed the truck where the Awami League president was standing with other top party leaders.
Everyone on the truck ducked, and those around Sheikh Hasina pushed her down as the second and the third grenades exploded. One of these was by the side of the truck, where the table was placed, and another just behind her vehicle, the report said. Two more grenades then landed.
Immediately, the Awami League chief’s protectors noticed that the fuel tank of the truck had been hit and was already leaking. They then quickly got her down from the truck and, guarded by a human shield, got her into her SUV.
As they made their escape, some more grenades exploded, with the tyre of the vehicle being hit by shrapnel.
The report also stated that more than 10 rounds were fired at the vehicle, with the window on Sheikh Hasina’s side shot twice and the back window five times.
The general perception was that the grenades were thrown from nearby rooftops, the report said.
The investigation team ascertained that Austrian Arges grenades – large military fragmentation-type hand grenades – were used in the attack. These contained explosive fillers identified by laboratory analysis as TNT.
Blood and protests
Hasina said she reached her home around 6pm. In her wake lay pools of blood, splinter-riddled bodies, and injured people.
Mahbub, a member of the Awami League chief’s personal staff, was killed near Sheikh Hasina’s vehicle while shielding her, while many of her companions were injured to varying degrees.
The shell-shocked Awami League supporters slowly began a rescue operation, and hailed whatever vehicles they could to get the victims to hospitals.
Later, they torched some vehicles around the area in protest, and police made baton charges and fired tear gas shells to disperse them.
Afterwards, the government deployed the now-defunct Bangladesh Rifles personnel in the city.
Crowds thronged mortuaries to see the deceased, while hospitals in the city were filled with those injured in the blast.
Around the city, the protests continued.