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Col. Taher - Lawrence Lifschultz

Col. Taher
Lawrence Lifschultz
The Daily Star

The Taher I knew [Sun. July 23, 2006]

I first met Taher in 1974 while I was living in Bangladesh. It was year of devastating floods which were causing extensive damage to crops particularly in areas such as Rangpur. With crops having been submerged more than five days, the autumn rice harvest was affected which meant landless and land-poor peasants would have no employment or means to buy rice for their own consumption.
By autumn, thousands of hungry rural folk were drifting into the towns in search of food, work or relief. When I reached Rangpur in October, famine dominated the town and its surrounding areas. It was a scene out of Dante's inferno with thousands of women and children begging for food. Their men folk had long since left for distant towns in the hope of finding work or relief and to send money home. Many had not been heard from.

It was in this atmosphere that I asked colleagues in Dhaka if they knew anyone who had a sophisticated understanding of the issue of flood control. Was there someone out there who understood the issue beyond the stale ideas that were being repeated year in and year out?

A journalist colleague told me there was an interesting army officer who had just published an article in Bichitra where he was advancing innovative ideas which showed a clear grasp of the problem and factors that had contributed to the exacerbation of flooding by the type of development that had been pursued for decades. The officer's name was Abu Taher.

I sought out Taher at his office. He had recently left the army and was now heading the Sea Truck Unit, an inland water transport organisation. I was fascinated by the man's ideas. He knew there would be no solution to a future of recurring famines without finding a sustainable and durable solution to the country's chronic flooding. Taher had researched the approach that had been utilized during the Mughal period. He had extensively studied the subject and what had happened during the colonial period. Clearly, there were lessons to be learned that modern experts were not even dimly aware of.

During the Mughal period the authorities had extensively mobilized the rural work force during the dry season to dig out an extensive network of canals designed precisely to facilitate "run off" so that a flooded rice crop would never be under water more than five days -- the time threshold until the crop was ruined.

Taher had also concluded that the development of railroads and surface roads since the colonial period had exacerbated the flooding problem by building its transport grids largely on an East-West axis. It was an axis that exacerbated crucial "run off" capability required to lower flood levels before crops were ruined. Moreover, the Mughal canal network that had made Bengal a relatively wealthy province had been systematically neglected during the colonial and post-colonial period. Naturally, the end result was a severe exacerbation of flooding.

Taher argued that the Mughals had organised their land based transport routes on a North-South axis, augmented where appropriate by river transport, which clearly was and had to be the backbone of the country's system of commodity transport. It was precisely for this reason he had taken up the post of Director of the Sea Truck Unit after he left the army.

I have only given the barest sketch of Taher's views. But, what I understood was that I had met a man who was a "scholar soldier" who looked to history to find pragmatic solutions to today's problems. I knew many people in Dhaka. This was my job as a reporter. But, as I got to know Taher, I found a remarkable synthesis of intellect, pragmatism, and commitment to solving Bangladesh's chronic problems of poverty and underdevelopment. I spent many evenings visiting him and talking into the early hours.

Not only did I learn about his views of guerrilla warfare that he had begun to implement in the 11th sector during the Liberation War but I also learned about the "new paradigm" for an army organisation that he sought to implement when he took command of the Comilla Brigade.

Taher had a view that the Bangladesh Army faced a cross-roads. It would either replicate the structures and organisational forms of the Pakistan Army or it would fashion itself into a new type of army not seen before in South Asia. If it ended up simply modeling itself ideologically and structurally on the Pakistan model where nearly all the soldiers has received their training, except for post-1971 Mukti Bahini recruits, then without doubt the Bangladesh Army at a future stage would become the agency of a military or a military-civilian dictatorship in this country.

In Taher's view if the Liberation War was to result in a fundamental change for those among the most impoverished strata in Bangladesh, then an army had to emerge that would identify with the interests of the poor. In his view, it could only do so by a new daily practice shaped around interactions with villagers and ordinary people. It would be an army much more than merely a force that carried arms. At this stage Taher called it a "productive army".

The Pakistan Army like all conventional armies had been an economic drain on the precious resources of the country. Huge budgets diverted funds to defense denying critical resources to schools, hospitals and productive investments. Decades of military dictatorship and domination had insured that Pakistan's Army had maintained a strangle hold on the country's economy. In Taher's view, the army was a giant parasite which had been an integral element of the process that had kept East Pakistan poor and backward.

He asked himself whether so many lives had been sacrificed to recreate this monster in an independent Bangladesh. His answer was "no" and it certainly would not happen with his participation as an army officer. He would try to show the way to a new paradigm and ally with forces in Bangladesh that saw a greater promise than merely “independence” in a war that his men referred to as the Liberation War.

In the Comilla Brigade, Taher organised his soldiers to be "productive soldiers." The Brigade had to grow its own food and become as self-sufficient as possible so it would not be an economic burden on society. Members of the Brigade had also to go out into the surrounding villages and help local farmers with planting, harvesting and work on irrigation systems. They became known in the rest of the army as the "Plow Soldiers." Some thought this amusing but others saw a serious purpose.

Taher viewed such daily interaction between soldiers and ordinary people as being critical to changing the culture within the army and the "mentality of domination" that is the psychological bedrock of an army en route to becoming a military dictatorship. This is what Taher would ultimately mean by his concept of a People's Army in the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

Taher explained to me that he had left the army because like minded officers like himself who were uncompromising against nascent forms of corruption and favoured a movement towards a new structure were losing ground. Conventional patterns were reasserting themselves. Increasingly, officers being repatriated from Pakistan who had been untouched by the ideological influence of the war, were assuming a greater role.

In a meeting with Taher, Mujib was patronizing and simply didn't grasp how serious the stakes were. The seeds of authoritarianism and military dictatorship were taking root. Mujib could not see this. In good Pakistani tradition, a military coup would happen. Taher intended to be outside the army preparing an alternative when that day came.

Mujib would pay a heavy price for not understanding what Taher had tried to describe to him in their last meeting.

In late 1974, I left Bangladesh to become South Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review which meant I would be based in New Delhi with responsibility for covering all of South Asia. When I said farewell to Taher, I had no sense whatsoever that he was secretly a member of the JSD or was involved in organising units inside and outside the army who were preparing themselves for the moment when the most conservative elements in Bangladeshi society would assert themselves in a military coup that would threaten to bury democratic rights.

What I did sense from Taher was that he had evolved over the years into a "revolutionary socialist." He had occasionally asked me to bring him a specific book or journal from abroad. He clearly had an interest in socialist economic debates and economic planning as a tool in development. Our discussions reflected an insightful, critical and thoughtful man.

It was only after the November 7 Uprising in 1975 that I saw Taher again. I was surprised to find that he was the military commander of the Uprising. While surprising to me, it was also logical to me. It was Taher's attempt to put his ideas into practice.

My relationship with Taher remained absolutely professional. When we met in the third week of November, he was already underground. Although he had saved Zia's life on November 7 (according to Zia's public claim at the time), Taher and the JSD's assessment of Zia's position had been wrong despite Zia's claims in private that only socialist policies could end Bangladesh's desperate poverty.

I managed to meet him after making elaborate arrangements. I was guided to a rendezvous by Taher's elder brother, Abu Yusuf Khan. We met for about ninety minutes where I heard Taher's side of the events surrounding November 7. As I was preparing to leave, he said I would be welcome back. He was hopeful. He implied their day was coming.

I reminded him that I would always be standing far back in the crowd watching him and his colleagues if they came to power. I said, depending on how they acted would determine whether or not I would be "welcome." I told him if there were arbitrary arrests or worse, I would be the first to report it. In such a situation, I said I may not be welcome. I reminded him that I was a critical skeptic of all power. He nodded, smiled and said he understood my point. I said, if you implement your dreams, I will also be there to report it. Create the New Army. Solve the flood control issue. Help the poor cease to be poor. I will describe it all.

We parted it was the last time I would ever see Taher again. My next encounter with him would be at a distance. I would be standing in front of Dhaka Central Jail the day his secret trial began.

The trial of Colonel Abu Taher [Mon. July 24, 2006]

Just over thirty years ago I stood outside Dhaka Central Jail. I had arrived early for a day that would become a "day to remember." It was June 28, 1976.
A week earlier, "Special Military Tribunal No. 1" had begun its work in secret. It convened for a single day and then immediately recessed for a week to permit defence lawyers seven days to prepare for a case which the prosecution had been working on for six months. The trial of Colonel Abu Taher and more than twenty others had begun. The accused, despite repeated requests throughout the period of their detention, had been denied access to legal counsel and communication with relatives.

Following the opening session, this correspondent filed dispatches to the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong, the BBC and the Guardian in London. At the time, I was South Asia correspondent of the Review. Transmission of these reports did not go through. However, copies flown to Bangkok by a passenger on an outgoing international flight meant that in the end the news of the trial was transmitted from Thailand. As a result, the first reports residents Dhaka had of the case came from the BBC Bengali Service.

On June 28, when the trial reopened, this correspondent, who had reported from Bangladesh for a full year in 1974, stood outside the gates of Dhaka Central Jail taking photographs of the Chief Prosecutor, ATM Afzal, the Chairman of the Tribunal, Colonel Yusuf Haider and others as they entered the prison gates. I was told by police officers present that the trial was top secret and I was not allowed to photograph anyone or anything. I said I had been reporting on Bangladesh for several years. I was a relatively well informed person and I was unaware of any such official guidelines or orders. If they wished me to stop photographing or reporting the case, I suggested they should show me a written order from the Information Ministry to that effect. Otherwise, I would continue my work as a journalist without interruption. I then raised my camera and photographed the police officer who was questioning me. He threw up his hands to cover his face and ran away.

There were many ironies that morning when the heavy iron gates at Dhaka Central Jail swung open and snapped closed again, admitting 30 black-coated barristers into the opening session. The trial and the charge of armed rebellion against established authority occurred at a time when there had been four governments in the past year, each succeeding the other by force of arms. Moreover, those officers who were part of Khaled Musharraf's November 3 coup d'etat and who were slandered by the official press as "Indian agents," had all been released from detention. Most notable among these was Brigadier Shafat Jamil who had placed Ziaur Rahman under house arrest. So it was that those officers who were behind the November 3 anti-Zia coup were freed and those men who staged the general uprising of November 7 which freed Zia now went on trial for their lives.

As I waited that June 21, watching the entrance, the trial opened in earnest behind the tall yellow-stained walls of Dhaka's Central Jail. Never before in the history of either Bangladesh or "East Pakistan" had a trial been held within the confines of a jail. Lawyers defending the accused had to take an oath of secrecy regarding the proceedings. Inside the country a total news blackout on the case was imposed. Security at the prison was exceptional: sand-bagged machine gun nests surrounded every entrance. There was no doubt the authorities were convening the tribunal inside the jail to avoid the possibility that trouble might erupt en route to the courthouse if there was an open trial.

I was left alone for more than two hours, as I waited outside the prison gates for the day's recess. I had wanted to interview the Tribunal Chairman so as to have an official statement of why the case was being held in such secrecy. But, at 11 am, I was arrested and detained at the jail. I was asked to surrender the film of photographs I had taken of those men who had entered the gates.

I informed the police officials and the army lieutenant who had taken me into custody that I would not voluntarily give up the film. Calls were made to the National Security Intelligence Agency, the NSI and Martial Law Headquarters. Within the hour, ten officials arrived to sort out the case. It was rather a large number of security personnel for only a single journalist.

I was asked by an NSI man calling himself Shamim Ahmed why I was interested in the Taher case. I explained that secret trials tended to rub me the wrong way whether done by Stalin, Franco or Zia. I said that I was a reporter and that if the six majors who killed Mujib had been put on trial by Khaled Musharraf inside Dhaka Central Jail, I would have reported it. And, if Khaled had lived and Zia had put him on trial, I would have been at the jail, as I was now, trying to report. And if Zia was now putting Taher on trial, inside a prison with frightened lawyers sworn to secrecy, I would report it. What was wrong with people knowing what was happening, I asked Ahmed. He picked up my camera and handed it to a young telecommunications officer, who some years earlier had trained in New York under the American office of Public Safety Program. The young fellow ripped out the film.

I was detained at the jail for a few hours while a decision was taken on what to do next. An army major said Headquarters thought the detention of a foreign correspondent might be embarrassing. That evening I cabled another despatch concern the trial. The cable office accepted the story, but did not transmit.

The next evening, as I returned to my residence, I was met by five Special Branch officers who informed me I was again under arrest. They were under orders to take me directly to the airport and put me on the first available flight out of the country. The next flight was out to India, from where I had expelled six months earlier for reporting Indira Gandhi's Emergency. Censorship was tough during those days in Delhi and no foreign correspondent paid any attention to it. Thus, I had not been the only journalist to be so honored with deportation from India -- merely the last.

I explained patiently to the Special Branch officers that they could not deport me to India since I had already been deported from there. In the end, I was kept for three days under house arrest until the next flight to Bangkok. On July 21 I was deported to Thailand and the last foreign and for that matter domestic news report on the Taher trial ended. The authorities now had their secrecy buttoned up.

The case went on for seventeen more days. Taher initially refused to attend the tribunal calling it "an instrument of the government to commit crimes in the name of justice." He also said, that if he were to be judged the panel must be made up of Mukti Bahini officers from the army, who had fought for the independence of the country and not by men like Yusuf Haider who had taken no part in the Liberation War. But, when the tribunal was formed no Mukti Bahini officers would sit on it.

Taher's lawyers were finally able to persuade him to participate in the trial. They believed at first the Tribunal would be able to function without intimidation. It was advice many of them regretted later when it became known that Taher's sentence had been determined well before the tribunal opened. On July 17, the Chairman of the Tribunal, Yusuf Haider, announced the sentence. On behalf of the army's High Command, Haider sentenced Taher to death.

Throughout the entire month of the trial not a single item regarding the case or my deportation for attempting to report on the trial had appeared in the Bangladesh press even though every editor and many journalists knew precisely what was going on inside the wall of the Central Jail. In May, a month before the trial began, in a mild violation of an undeclared, but well understood news blackout, Ittefaq, published a one-inch back page news item entitled "Conspiracy Case To Begin?" Ittefaq's editor, Anwar Hossain was immediately called to army headquarters and told if he tried it again, he would be arrested.

With the press muzzled and the trial over on July 18, the government ordered newspapers to publish an official statement on the case and nothing more. Front page banner headlines in the Bangladesh Observer and other papers announced Taher's death sentence. It was the first news through the Bengali media that the country had of the case and it came at the end of the trial as a fait accompli. Of course, no mention of Taher's moving address to the court or any of its proceedings were allowed to be printed.

Although Taher insisted he wanted no appeals to be made in his name and that he wanted nothing from the regime, his lawyers nonetheless approached President A M Sayem calling upon him to essentially negate the sentence. These lawyers, Ataur Rahman Khan and Zulmat Ali, understood the law and they understood how Taher's trial had violated the most fundamental tenets of the law.

Yet, at that moment Taher's lawyers did not realize that part of the hidden agenda of this trial was a "fast track" to an execution. Sayem soon revealed himself as an integral element of this agenda.

It is sometimes said that the veneer of our civilization is very thin. The actions of A M Sayem in this period showed just how thin it could be. Sayem was a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Five years earlier, he had written perhaps the most significant legal decision on capital punishment and the rights of an accused ever to be handed down by the Supreme Court.

In the case against Purna Chandra Mondal, Sayem threw out a death sentence passed on the accused. The judgement established a legal precedent as significant as the famous Miranda decision in the United States guaranteeing legal protections to an accused facing trial. Sayem argued that "the last moment appointment of a defence lawyer for an accused virtually negated the right of an accused to be properly defended in the case."

In the Mondal case Sayem had written:

'The Code of Criminal Procedure confers a right on every accused person brought before a Criminal Court to be defended by a lawyer. That right extends to access to the lawyer for private consultations and also affording the latter an adequate opportunity of preparing the case for defence. A last moment appointment of an advocate for defending a prisoner accused of a capital offence not only results in a breach of the provision of Chapter 12 of the Legal Remembrance Manual ... and frustrates the object behind the elaborate provisions of that Chapter. Such an appointment results also in a denial to the prisoner of the right conferred on him by Section 340 of the Code ... the denial of this right must be held to have rendered the trial as one not according to law, necessitating a fresh trial."

Taher was not allowed access to a lawyer until the day the case against him opened. Thus, Sayem's own words such a trial was "one not according to law." Nevertheless, Sayem, who as a judge had written that no man under law could be sentenced to death were he not given the right of an adequate defence, now in the position of President, reaffirmed the death sentence on Taher. And, he made his decision within twenty-four hours of the sentencing.

Here for all to see was the phenomenon of a judge acting as a criminal. It was more than a simply example of human hypocrisy. What else can one say of Sayem who is authorizing Taher's execution directly violated the law that he himself had enumerated in the Mondal case.

The Chief Prosecutor, ATM Afzal, after the trial was to be rewarded with an appointment to the position of Judge of the Dhaka High Court and would later become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but a worried man in 1976, he anxiously claimed to his colleagues that he was more stunned than anyone at the sentence of death. As a prosecutor, he claimed, he had never asked for a death sentence. He said such a judgment was impossible. There was no law in existence under which Taher could be executed for the crime with which he had been charged.

But, did Afzal publicly protest the verdict or express regret for the role he played in this tragic charade? Did he ever consider walking out and say he would not be a party to a secret trial held within the confines of the Central Jail? If we are looking for evidence of a "profile in courage" or a sense of principle in the character of Bangladesh's future Chief Justice, who in the summer of 1976 stood on the doorstep of a long and promising career, we will find no such evidence.

Thirty years have now passed. We are all aware of what happened. 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.

Today I am reminded of two men -- Bartholomew Sacco and Giuseppi Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who came to my country, the United States, for a better life and instead ended up framed for a crime they did not commit. Their politics were not to the liking of the American authorities who in the 1920s were seized by a hysteria against socialists, anarchists and communists. Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death after a trial that systematically violated all legal norms. Unlike Taher's case the trial was not in secret. There were worldwide protests in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States to stop the death sentence. Despite this both men were executed.

In 1979, after decades of revelations concerning illegal acts on the part of the prosecution and the judiciary, Michael Dukakis, the Governor of the State of Massachusetts where both men were executed, declared fifty years after their execution that in the view of the State, Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent and had been wrongly executed. Governor Dukakis declared that each year on the anniversary of their execution, the State of Massachusetts would observe "Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day."

The time has come in Bangladesh to act in a similar fashion. 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.

It is very difficult to truly correct a crime that has happened in the past. Whatever is done will always be insufficient. A life can never be brought back. There is no way "to set right” the experience of three small children growing up without the daily presence of their father or a young woman losing her husband in the prime of life. In matters of the heart like this there can be no repair adequate to the event. What can be done is a very minimal thing: an acknowledgement by the authorities that a tragic and wrongful act was committed. This is the very minimum that justice requires.

Of course, there exist thousands of tragic cases which get little attention throughout the world. In Bangladesh also there have been many cases of deaths and summary executions in the jails that occurred during 1975, 1977 and 1981 which should be carefully addressed. Our focus today on the Taher case should not minimize the work that needs to be done in other instances where human rights violations have occurred. Perhaps, success here will assist in a full assessment and public accounting of the many deaths in custody that have occurred since the 1970s.

Hopefully, one day a national commission like the ones that were formed in Argentina and South Africa will be organized in Bangladesh to look systematically into the many cases of deaths in prison where summary trials led to summary executions. The Argentine Commission produced a remarkable report entitled "Nunca Mas" or "Never Again." The shock of the report helped to revive the rule of law within a society that had been ravaged by thousands of disappearances and deaths in custody.

Bangladesh needs such an accounting of its past. To mention only a few cases, among many, which ought to be addressed is the death of Tajuddin Ahmed and his colleagues in 1975, the secret executions of scores of soldiers in prisons around the country in 1977, the death of General Manzur in custody in 1981, and the secret trial and execution of the group of thirteen military officers in 1981.

This call for justice in the Taher case is not specific to any party or any specific government. Whatever government is in power it should be pressed to overturn the verdict in the Taher case.

Today, I call upon Khaleda Zia to search her conscience because even those who have traveled the dark road to power might still be able to find that flickering light we know as "conscience." I believe that Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, the American writer, who inspired Gandhi, were especially right about one particular point. They believed that it is important to confront individuals with moral choices. People may lack the moral strength to make difficult choices. Nevertheless, they ought to be presented with a choice, whether or not they ultimately chose to act in an ethical fashion.

What is remarkable about this situation is that Khaleda Zia once regarded Abu Taher as a family friend. He was a visitor to her home and on the morning of November 7, 1975, as Zia feared for his life, it was Taher he called. Zia knew exactly who Taher would bring to the rescue. Khaleda witnessed Taher and his associates free General Zia. It was then that Zia in front of many soldiers thanked Taher for saving his life.

July 21 was the 30th anniversary of Taher's execution. I doubt the prime minister could ever bring herself to publicly defend the manner in which Taher's trial was conducted. It was an abomination of all norms of human decency. It is within the prime minister's power as an individual to acknowledge that the trial and the way it was conducted was simply wrong, even illegal. If she decided to do so, she could say that justice required that the verdict be overturned and that past mistakes must be acknowledged. More need not be said.

I am not optimistic and I am under no illusions this will happen. Yet, as a writer it is my prerogative to raise the issue and pose the choice. Thoreau believed that people are never too old to give up their prejudices or to rediscover the conscience they may have lost. Yet, it is very rare for them to do so. However, it is their choice.

My own view is that some future government 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.