Political opposition must be faced politically, not with grenades
As Judge Shahed Nuruddin of the Dhaka Speedy Trial Tribunal-1 started reading out the verdict in the two cases filed in connection with the August 21 grenade attack in the early afternoon of October 10, the long wait of more than 14 years for justice was about to come to an end.
For those killed and injured on that fateful date and their families, it was more than a verdict that was pronounced in that courtroom situated in Old Dhaka’s Nazimuddin Road. It was an answer to their calls for justice; it was a confirmation of their stories of suffering.
The verdict is also a vindication of the misery of the indirect victims of this tragedy such as the innocent Joj Mia, who was tortured and coerced by the unscrupulous law enforcers into giving false confessions under the then BNP-Jamaat government with a view to sheltering the real perpetrators of the crime.
It was also a vindication for Awami League, the party which has been carrying not only the physical and psychological wounds of this traumatic experience but the added pressure of having to respond to the insensitive allegation from BNP-Jamaat that they themselves were responsible for the attack on their own people.
The verdict is also a great reminder of certain political realities of Bangladesh that we take for granted sometimes, especially nowadays.
The judge rightly pointed out that the August 21 attack had the same objective as the August 15, 1975 tragedy.
The attack was not only an attack on a party, but also on an ideology. The effort to render the AL leaderless is simply a different means of rendering the secular, progressive mainstream in Bangladesh guardian-less.
We might do well to imagine what kind of Bangladesh we would have inherited today had the designers and perpetrators of the August 21 attack been completely successful.
Presumably, we would have been left with another long phase of post August-1975 Bangladesh, devoid of the spirit of its founding principles.
A Bangladesh where shots continued to be called from the infamous Hawa Bhaban, where Tarique Rahman continued to reign as the unofficial supreme leader, where groups like Harkat Ul Jihad and Jamaatul Mujaheedin had free reign, where Giasuddin Ul Mamun and not the ECNEC decided what development projects to undertake, and where Jamaat was left in peace to finish their unfinished task of remaking Bangladesh in their image of East Pakistan.
While this picture of this alternative Bangladesh may sound unfairly dystopian to some, it is grounded on facts. While history can often be extremely forgiving, facts are not.
Getting back to the verdict itself, from the perspective of justice, the verdict is immensely significant because all the actors involved have been convicted, including the killers, their backers, their patrons, their suppliers, their protectors, and benefactors. The shadowy figures, the people pulling the strings, the masterminds have not escaped judgment.
There remains some discontent with the fact that some of the accused, including the mastermind Tarique Rahman, have not been awarded the highest punishment available under law, that is, the death penalty. Such disappointment is not surprising however.
This is because from the perspective of the victims, it is expected that the masterminds who planned the attack, receive the same punishment as the killers who actually supplied and lobbed the grenades. Even the Penal Code 1860 supports that notion.
It is now up to the government and prosecution to decide on the next course of action. Presumably, as apparent from the statement of the law minister following the verdict, they will be filing an appeal against sentence once they receive the full version of the judgment. That remains to be seen.
Additionally, there is also the issue of bringing back the fugitive convicts from various countries so that they can serve the sentences that they so thoroughly deserve. It has been learned that the government is trying to bring back Tajuddin from South Africa. Presumably, they would also be making efforts to bring back Tarique Rahman from the UK.
But legal and law enforcement issues aside, what lessons does the BNP take from this verdict? It appears none so far unfortunately. Even the day before the verdict, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul commented that the AL was the biggest beneficiary of the August 21 attack.
By the same token, BNP leaders, spurred on by Tarique’s recent video statement, has once again insinuated that the AL itself shifted the venue of their meeting on August 21, 2004 from Muktagon to Bangabandhu Avenue with ulterior intent.
This is not only insensitive on the part of BNP, but also factually incorrect. The then BNP-Jamaat government compelled the AL on the venue issue by not approving Muktangon.
Such a stance from BNP is unfortunate not only for the victims of the attack, but also for the entire political culture of Bangladesh. As a party, BNP has not learned to accept reality, and continues to live in complete denial about their role in such events as the August 21 attack.
One would have hoped that in the last 14 years, BNP would have had ample time to reflect on their actions, be adequately remorseful, and as a party taken the opportunity to start afresh, leaving such a violent past behind. Alas, that is not to happen it appears.
Disappointing as it was, this did not come as a surprise however. BNP never considered the actions of these criminals to be any way reprehensible and continued to own them wholeheartedly.
In 2016, when BNP held its party council, it made Lutfozzaman Babor a member and Abdus Salam Pintu a vice chairman of the party’s central executive committee. Earlier, in 2008, Pintu was given party nomination for general election.
BNP’s unlearned lessons notwithstanding, the judge has rightly observed in his verdict that the people of Bangladesh do not want to see such extreme violence in our politics anymore. Political opposition must be faced politically, not with military grade grenades. That, for me, is the biggest takeaway from this historic verdict.
Shah Ali Farhad is a lawyer, researcher, and political activist. He is a Senior Analyst at the Centre for Research and Information (CRI).