Assassins' death sentences fail to calm Bangladesh

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SENTENCING 15 men to public execution by firing squad may seem an improbable way of healing wounds, but that is how many patriots were yesterday interpreting a Dhaka court's decision on the assassins of Bangladesh's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: as an act of national healing.

Unfortunately the parties thrown to celebrate this defining moment in Bangladesh's short history were quickly scattered by a spasm of political violence across the country in which two people died and dozens were injured.

When the ruling Awami League ended an anomaly which had kept the late president's murderers out of the reach of justice for 23 years, it laid plausible claim to the moral high ground. But the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is tarred by association with the plot to kill Mujib (as he is usually known), continued its campaign to drive the government from office through public agitation.

Yesterday saw the start of a 48-hour national strike called by the BNP, the latest in a long line. Last night it decided to prolong the strike by a further 12 hours.

The violence started when pro-government activists set fire to a BNP office to try to stop strikers from marching on the home of the mayor of Dhaka. The opposition's activists retaliated in force, and the clash ended with a gunfight in which two people were reportedly killed.

It was a bloody aftermath to the historic moment in Dhaka's Sessions Court on Sunday when, after a trial widely hailed for its fairness, Bangladesh took an important step towards democratic maturity.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the man who created Bangladesh out of what was formerly East Pakistan in the crucible of a bloody war with West Pakistan in 1971. Mujib was the father of the nation, inspiring the struggle from prison in (West) Pakistan, then returning home to become the new nation's first prime minister.

But on 15 August 1975, a clique of army officers burst into his home in the middle of the night and murdered not only Mujib himself but also 18 members of his family including his wife, his three sons, two daughters- in-law and other close relatives. The only members of his family to survive were his two daughters, who were both abroad. The elder of them, Sheikh Hasina, by no coincidence at all, is now Prime Minister.

This Jacobean bloodbath heralded the descent of Bangladesh into a maelstrom of murder and military takeover from which it has only recently emerged. Only three months later, a series of coups and counter-coups over five days brought General Ziaur Rahman to power. Rahman himself was later assassinated. Today it is Rahman's widow, Khaleda Zia, who heads the opposition BNP, while Mujib's orphaned daughter rules the country.

It was General Rahman who, though not directly implicated in Mujib's death, allowed his killers to go free by passing a constitutional amendment indemnifying them. "Ours must be the only constitution in the world in which legal power to try murderers is suspended," commented a top Dhaka journalist - though there is an obvious analogy with the indemnification of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

General Rahman further protected Mujib's assassins by placing them in diplomatic postings around the world.

Mujib's party, the Awami League, was almost destroyed by the murders, and it took 20 years for it to regain the ground that it had lost.

Finally, after former prime minister Khaleda Zia relinquished power to a caretaker government in response to popular upheavals, Sheikh Hasina and her party won the general election in 1996.

By restoring the power of the courts to try her father's murderers, Sheikh Hasina has understandably been accused of wanting to exact revenge. But there is more to it than that, as she herself said after the pronouncing of the verdict on Sunday, speaking in the house where her father was killed.

"It was very much essential to hold the trial of the offenders," she said. "Peace and progress can never exist in a country where wrongdoers and killers are given shelter."

The editor of a Dhaka daily echoed this view yesterday. "It is a very significant event in the sense of restoring the whole notion of the supremacy of justice, the notion that law can reach you no matter how distant the crime," he said.

"It strengthens democratic norms, so it is an extremely heartening event. Mujib made mistakes, but he was a great man, the central figure in our independence struggle. The fact that his killers went free was a major blot on our conscience."