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Bangladesh: Tracking down the killers

by David Bergman, 8 November 2013

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New Age (Bangladesh) 8 November 2013

FORTY-TWO years ago, on the cusp of Bangladesh winning independence following a nine-month war, gangs of men drove round Dhaka picking up journalists, physicians and academics from their homes.

At least some, if not all, of the 17 men and one woman were taken to a sports centre in Mohammadpur on the western side of the city, where they were detained, and some of them tortured. All of them were killed.

Some bodies were found in a mass grave in Rayer Bazar — but most were never recovered.

All eighteen of those picked up in the four days between the 10th and 14th of December 1971 had one thing in common. They supported Bangladesh’s independence and had either spoken out in favour of it or otherwise assisted those fighting to make it a reality.

A few days after these abductions, whilst the rest of the new nation of Bangladesh celebrated its independence after the surrender of the Pakistan military, the families of these men and women could only grieve.

In 1994, 23 years after the end of the war — and 19 years ago today — I came to Bangladesh to investigate whether or not a man called Chowdhury Mueen Uddin was involved in these abductions.

Gita Sahgal, a good friend, had been researching the possibility of making a documentary on the attacks on Taslima Nasreen and on non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh, and its relationship with growing fundamentalism in the United Kingdom. She asked me to read through her research proposal and in it there was a line about a man who was the vice-chairman of East London mosque having been involved in war crimes during the 1971 war. I was intrigued.

She told me that the information had come from a book — and another friend, a teacher in the East End of London, gave it to me: Genocide 71: an account of the killers and collaborators published in 1987. Shahriar Kabir was one of the editors.

The book comprises summaries of press reports published during and immediately after the war, and provides an account of how some of those who were alleged to have committed crimes in the 1971 had managed to escape proper investigation and processes of accountability, with many resuming successful political careers.

In it was the name of Mueen Uddin, a man who had come to England in 1972, become a British citizen, and subsequently an influential person within the Bangladeshi and wider ‘Muslim’ community as it is known in the UK.

The book alleged that Mueen Uddin was the operation-in-charge of the abduction of the intellectuals. It claimed he was a leader of Al-Badr, a militia set up by the political party Jamaat-e-Islami, which had collaborated with the Pakistan military.

Based on this book, Gita and I then worked on a proposal for a documentary for broadcast on the Uk television station, Channel 4. Working with a team of Bangladesh journalists, we spent many months in Dhaka and Feni talking to people who knew Mueen Uddin during the war, interviewing the families of those whose relatives were abducted, and trying to find eyewitnesses.

Slowly, we were able to piece together a picture of what had taken place.
In 1971 Mueen Uddin was a young journalist, working for the Dainik Purbodesh newspaper - so we first tried to meet journalists who used to work there.

Our first breakthrough came when we were given the name of the then Purbodesh journalist Atiqur Rahman. He told us that he first came to realise that Mueen Uddin was closely linked to Jamaat and the Pakistan army when he became the first Bangladesh journalist to write about the formation of Al-Badr.

Atiqur’s initial concerns about Uddin were confirmed by two subsequent incidents.

A few weeks before the war, Mueen Uddin enquired about the number of Atiqur’s house in Arambagh in Dhaka. Feeling momentarily uncertain about giving Uddin the correct details of where he lived, Atiqur gave an inaccurate number 7, instead of 111, and the wrong name of the house, Paglavilla.

When the war ended, he was shown a list of names of journalists found in the Fakirapur office of Al-Badr, and on it was written his own name, with the false address he had given Mueen Uddin.

The second, and even more significant, incident was when Atiqur Rahman, sitting in the press club sometime in January 1972, received a call from a freedom fighter who told him to come quickly to a particular address. There he found a man called Khaleq Majumdar, whom Atiqur knew as the office secretary of the Dhaka city Jamaat-e-Islami office, tied down to a table.

Majumdar pleaded with Atiqur that he was not involved in Al-Badr but claimed that Mueen Uddin was the operation-in-charge of Al Badr in Dhaka city. Atiqur questioned him on this, and got Majumder to sign a hand written statement.

Based on this conversation, Atiqur Rahman wrote and distributed a press release, which was published in many newspapers, about Mueen Uddin’s alleged role in the Al-Badr and the killings of the intellecutals, a report that was picked up by the New York Times.

Along with these reports, a picture of Mueen Uddin was published. And this turned out to be very significant.

One of the next journalists that we met was Ataus Samad, who subsequently became the BBC correspondent in Dhaka but during the war worked for the West Pakistan based newspaper The Sun.

In December 1971 he had closed up his home, and had moved to a relative’s house, and thus had no idea that a gang of men came looking for him.

A few days after the war, one of his tenants, Mushtaqur Rahman, saw Ataus Samad on the veranda of his house and came running to him with a copy of a newspaper.

Samad told us that Mushtaq explained to him that a few days before the war ended, some men had come round to his house, found the gates locked and then come to the door of Mushtaq’s house. The face of one of the Bengali men was visible, but at the time Mushtaq had no idea who this person was. However, Mushtaq said the picture of Mueen Uddin in the newspaper was the same as that of the man who had come round to the house.

It was not easy to locate Mushtaq, but when we did, he confirmed the story.
And when we found another of Samad’s tenants, Mahmudur Rahman, he also said that he had, immediately after the war, recognized Mueen Uddin from the published picture.

Another person who opened up an important line of inquiry for us was Professor Anissuzzaman, now emeritus professor at Dhaka University, from where seven of the men were abducted.

One of his teachers was Moffazel Haider Chowdhury who was taken from his house on December 14, 1971.

Sometime in the middle of the following month, Anissuzzaman went round to Chowdury’s family house. There he met Chowdhury’s brother, Lutful Haider Chowdhury, who told him Mofazzel had recognized Chowhdury Mueen Uddin, a student of his, as one of the men who came to abduct him.

Lutful had died by 1995 when we were making the film, but their sister Dolly was also present at the time of the abduction. And when we met, she said she had recognised that a student of her brother was present at the time of the abduction and later came to know that it was Mueen Uddin.

All of this — and more — became the film The War Crimes File, which was broadcast in the UK in 1996 and won the Royal Television Society special commendation award.

Chowdhury Mueen Uddin has always denied the allegations against him.
The evidence collected in the course of the research — much of it subsequently set out in affidavit form — was put together and sent to the New Scotland Yard’s War Crimes Unit, which had been set up to investigate war crimes, and was primarily concerned then with allegations that former Nazis during the Second World War, were living in the UK.

The New Scotland Yard responded to the evidence we sent by stating that, in its view, ‘primary jurisdiction’ for the prosecution of these offences lay with Bangladesh, and sent the material to the Bangladesh High Commission. It never said, as claimed by Mueen Uddin in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, that there was insufficient evidence to initiate investigations.

The file slowly found its way, through the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, onto the desk of Abdul Hannan Khan, a senior police officer appointed under the newly installed Awami League government in 1996.
A first information report was lodged by one of the relatives, and Hannan then initiated his own investigation.

So now, fast forward, another 17 years, and Mueen Uddin’s case came up before the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh — with Hannan now its chief investigator.

The prosecution had not sought Mueen Uddin’s extradition. Possibly this was because it knew that this would delay any trial in Bangladesh. Or it may have been the government’s understanding that it would be difficult or impossible for the UK courts to extradite him as the prosecution in Dhaka would seek the death penalty.

As a result, the trial was held in absentia. This, in my view, was a great pity, as the prosecution case was not able to be been properly tested, and Mueen Uddin was not able to put forward his own defence.

I have always thought that evidence against Mueen Uddin, collected in the making of the film, was compelling. But I also knew that journalistic endeavours are in themselves not sufficient proof of a person’s guilt, and an appropriate judicial process was essential.

The moment of conviction was hugely significant for the families of the 18 intellectuals who were abducted and killed.

Immediately after the trial, I met Anirban Mostafa. He is the son of Golam Mostafa, one of the journalists abducted. In the early morning of December 11, Anirban, then a baby, was being walked in his father’s arms to get him to go to sleep.

A group of men came and asked Mostafa, ‘Are you ANM Golam Mostafa?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ Then they said, ‘Please leave the baby for a while and come with us. We have to go to the office for a while.’

That was the last time Anirban saw his father.

I had last met Anirban almost two decades earlier in 1995 when he was a young student and we were interviewing his uncle Dulu Rahman.

It was an emotional moment when we met again in the tribunal. I asked him how he felt now with the conviction of Mueen Uddin. He said that, since his father’s death, ‘Bangladesh had become his father’ and he always had faith in his country.

It was quite a moment.

Whatever questions there may be about this trial process, it is important for people to recognise and understand that it does at least meet the need for justice felt by the families of those abducted and murdered forty two years ago.

David Bergman is editor, Special Reports for New Age.

P.S.

The above article from New Age is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use