AFFIDAVIT TO THE BANGLADESH SUPREME COURT
AFFIDAVIT of Lawrence Lifschultz
Justice A.H.M. Shamsuddin & Justice Sheikh Md. Zakir Hossain
The Supreme Court of Bangladesh
High Court Division
Ref: Writ Petition 7236 of 2010
Regarding the Trial & Execution Colonel Abu Taher in July 1976
31 January 2011
- My name is Lawrence Lifschultz. I am an American citizen and a writer by profession. I am resident of Stony Creek, Connecticut in the United States.
- On January 21, 2011 I was contacted by email by M.K. Rahman, the Additional Attorney General of Bangladesh and informed that the Supreme Court had made a request that I appear before it by January 26, 2011 in order to share with the Court “necessary information as to the so-called trial and conviction of Colonel Abu Taher by a Special Military Tribunal in 1976.”
- This is a request I’ve been hoping to receive for more than 30 years. I would consider it one of the great honors of my life to stand in Justice Shamsuddin’s and Justice Hossain’s court room in Dhaka. In my view a tragic crime was committed in Dhaka during June and July 1976. I was one of the few witnesses to what happened in this case. On June 28, 1978 I stood in front of Dhaka Central Jail. It was the day the “so-called trial” of Abu Taher and his colleagues began in secret hidden, behind the walls of a prison. When I arrived that morning, the security around the prison appeared as if the Army was preparing for a war. Machine gun nests were set up all along the prison walls with their guns pointing outwards. What were these guns defending? Secrecy? Who were they prepared to shoot? Why was a trial taking place in a prison instead of in Court?
- As one of the only independent witnesses at the prison that day, I believe it is my responsibility to describe what I saw and why I believe these events transpired as they did. In a letter to Justices Shamsuddin and Hossain I explained it was impossible for me to travel to Dhaka at this moment. My son was recently in a serious accident. He was badly injured. He is in the process of recovery and has passed a critical point in a three month process of recuperation. We have just completed a two month milestone. My presence is required for at least another month. Furthermore, another issue has made it impossible for me to travel to Dhaka until the end of February. Thus, not wishing to delay the proceedings of the Supreme Court in this matter I am submitting an affidavit.
- In 1976 I was South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong). I had been based in New Delhi. Two years earlier I lived in Dhaka where I was the Bangladesh Correspondent of the Review. Thus, I knew many of the political and military figures of the period and was knowledgeable of the turmoil and conflict then roiling Bangladesh society.
- In June of 1976 I arrived in Dhaka from Katmandhu. Abu Taher had been arrested following the November 7th Uprising. As South Asia Correspondent of the Review, I reported on the tragic events of August 1975 when Sheik Mujib was murdered. I also returned to Dhaka following the insurrection and Sepoy Mutiny of November 7th. This is not the place to review these events. I have written elsewhere in detail about these matters.
- In my view the critical issue which faces the Supreme Court is whether Abu Taher’s constitutional and human rights were violated, in the most fundamental manner, by a military regime that had no democratic or constitutional legitimacy. On what legal basis was “Special Military Tribunal No. 1” constituted? Were those facing trial before this Tribunal given adequate time to prepare their defense? Or, in fact were they denied access to legal representation until only a few days before the proceedings began? What standing did this Tribunal have constitutionally or morally to pass a death sentence? Would it be accurate to describe the Tribunal headed by Colonel Yusuf Haider as simply a Kangaroo Court which implemented a sentence pre-determined? These are the questions that need to be addressed and answered. Furthermore, these need to be answered within the framework of rights defined and guaranteed by to all the citizens of Bangladesh by the country’s Constitution.
- There is an important piece of evidence that I wish to place before the Court which I believe may assist in answering these questions. When I arrived in Dhaka in early June 1976, I contacted General Mhd. Manzur. I indicated that I was in Bangladesh. At the time Manzur was Chief of General Staff. I had previously met General Manzur in New Delhi in the summer of 1974 when he was Banglaesh’s military attaché in India. At the time I was curious to speak with him about his experiences in the Liberation War and his escape as a junior officer from Pakistan following the Pakistan Army’s violent crackdown in Dhaka on March 25, 1971.
- Manzur together with Abu Taher and Mohammed Ziauddin had bravely crossed the border into Indian administered Kashmir in order to join the Liberation War. Within weeks all three would become sector commanders. Taher, who I had already met in Dhaka, suggested that summer of 1974 that I meet Manzur in New Delhi on my way back to the United States. I was in the process of moving to New Delhi to become the Review’s South Asia Correspondent. The day I met Mazur the two of us spent most of a long afternoon talking about history.
- Thus, two years later in June 1976, when I called and told him I was in Dhaka he was pleased to hear I was in town. However, I was soon to discover he had a great deal on his mind. He told me that he would send someone to meet me in order to make arrangements for us to get together. He insisted that we meet late at night at his Headquarters in the Cantonment. I arrived about nine in the evening. I stayed for nearly three hours.
- During the evening General Manzur focused most of all on speaking to me about Taher who by then had been in prison for more than six months. He told me Taher had been kept mostly in solitary confinement. He asked me about my travel plans. I told him I was expected in the United States by the end of June. He said I shouldn’t leave. He feared that Zia would go through with plans to put Taher on trial. Manzur and other officers who participated in the Liberation War were trying to dissuade Zia but in early June Manzur was uncertain he could stop the trial from proceeding. He spoke of anti-Liberation forces having a growing influence in the Army. He again emphasized to me that I should stay in Dhaka. He said if there was a trial someone should report on it in the international press. I could see he was worried. I changed my travel plans and stayed.
- I didn’t see General Manzur again that June. Tension was mounting in Dhaka. I attempted to interview General Zia. His staff asked me to write out a list of questions. They covered many issues such as the Farraka Barrage which at the time was emerging as a crisis between India and Bangladesh. But, the list also included several questions concerning the November 7th Uprising and Abu Taher’s arrest. I asked Zia, among other matters, to confirm that Taher and forces under his command had saved Zia’s life that evening. If that were the case, why had he arrested Taher and freed those who had, in fact, detained him. 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.
- I was arrested and deported in the midst of Taher’s trial. On the 30th Anniversary of Taher’s execution I spoke at a memorial gathering at Dhaka University in which I described how an effort was made to impose complete and total censorship of the trial. (See “The Trial of Colonel Abu Taher” by Lawrence Lifschultz, The Daily Star, July 24, 1976. See also “The Taher I Knew” by Lawrence Lifschultz, The Daily Star, July 23, 1976. Both articles are attached as exhibits to this affidavit.)
- The reason I have brought up my meeting in early June 1976 with General Manzur is because of what happened later. The night I met Manzur at the Cantonment he clearly feared that Zia would go ahead with Taher’s trial but he did not say that he feared this would end with Taher’s execution. I don’t think at that stage such a thing was quite imaginable. However, several months after the trial Manzur sent me a message through an intermediary. I was then living in Cambridge, England. Manzur’s emissary told me that Manzur wanted me to know that he had tried to stop the trial but clearly had been powerless to do so even though he ranked third in the Army’s High Command. His opposition to Taher’s trial had made him a marked man inside the Army among those who wanted Taher dead. Although many of us had suspected it, Manzur’s representative told me that General Manzur also wanted me to know one thing above all else: Manzur knew with absolute certainty that Zia had personally taken the decision before the “so called trial” even began that Taher would be hanged. Subsequently, this fact was also confirmed to me by two high ranking military officers who were close to Zia at that time.
- What are the implications of such a fact within the framework of the judicial review taking place today by the Supreme Court? Can what happened in Dhaka Central Jail in July 1976 even be termed a trial? If the death sentence was determined prior to the Tribunal convening, then was the Tribunal in reality simply a deadly mechanism used by extra-judicial forces to stage an execution. If this be so, then Special Tribunal No. 1 which sat only once, and was never convened again, should be named for what it truly was. In reality it was an illegal entity established to commit murder and to imprison men and women who were denied their constitutional rights. Hopefully, the Bangladesh Supreme Court will today, in an atmosphere largely free of the fear, threat and coercion that so pervaded the past, find its way to overturning a verdict of a Tribunal which in every respect was a negation of the principles underlying Bangladesh’s Constitution and the rights guaranteed to its citizens by law.
- I believe independent of the fact that the verdict was pre-determined before the Tribunal convened 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”. Such a crime ought to be remedied by an institution of the State that has power and capability to look back historically on crimes of the past. This has been done by several societies in modern times including Germany, Argentina, Chile and South Africa, to name only a few. One institution that has that capability is Bangladesh’s Supreme Court.
- Those on trial were denied access to adequate legal representation. Their fundamental rights under the Bangladesh constitution were violated. The trial was in secret before an illegal entity which had no foundation in law. The trial was held in a prison, not a Court of Law. The press was shackled so 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?
- Here, being tried in secret, was a Sector Commander of the Liberation War who lost his left leg in a battle for his country’s independence and who was awarded the highest military distinction, Bir Uttam, for courage, shown by those who fought and survived the 1971 war. By what form of fiction could any Court maintain that Taher’s trial was lawful?
- Five years ago, when I spoke at the Teacher-Student Center at Dhaka University, I made the following observation:
“Thirty years have now passed. We are all aware of what happened. Today marks the 30th anniversary of Taher’s execution. It is time in my view for a public act by the state and judicial authorities to publicly declare that Abu Taher was wrongfully tried and wrongfully executed. The verdict of July 17, 1976 should be vacated and a public acknowledgement should be made that Taher’s civil and legal rights were grossly violated by the government which put him on trial…Appropriate mechanisms to accomplish this task need to be found. Justice requires that the verdict be formally overturned and that there be an official acknowledgement that the entire so-called ‘trial of Abu Taher’ was a violation of proper legal procedure and represented a violation of the fundamental rights of the accused to due process…My own view is that some future government [or Court] will act in a moral and ethical way on this issue. We must not rest until the verdict in the Taher case has been overturned. It is, my friends, a matter of justice.”
(“The Trial of Abu Taher”, Keynote Address by Lawrence Lifschultz, Dhaka University, Th Daily Star, July 24, 1976. See also “Colonel Taher, Lifschultz & Our Collective Guilt” by Syed Badrul Ahsan, The Daily Star, July 26, 1976.)
20. Justice Shamsuddin and Justice Hossain, you have before you a great moral and legal challenge. Whatever you decide in this case will have historic significance. The Taher case in my view has important international implications. The petitioners in this case have been on a long journey. It is a journey that for so many men and women is painfully elusive. To find justice at the end of such a long road for an event that has shaken one’s life happens so rarely in human experience. I know each of the petitioners in this case. They deserve our profound respect and the respect of the world. There is only one way to provide that respect to them. It is to provide them a sense that finally at the end of a journey of more than three decades, justice has been done. This is your task.
21. I submit this Affidavit to the Bangladesh Supreme Court by electronic mail through the office of M.K. Rahman, the Additional Attorney General, who contacted me on behalf of the Supreme Court. Simultaneously, there follows by courier a notarized and authenticated copy of this affidavit and its attachments which will be forwarded to the Bangladesh Supreme Court by Shabbir Chowdhury, Consul General of Bangladesh in New York City through the office of the Foreign Secretary in Dhaka. It is with great regret that I cannot be present before the Court in Dhaka to deliver my affidavit in person. It would have been a great honor which I would have treasured for the rest of my life.
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