The strange case of Colonel Taher

The strange case of Colonel Taher

A landmark high court judgment in Bangladesh brings the Ziaur Rahman regime back to the spotlight

On March 22,Bangladesh’s high court in a landmark judgment declared illegal the constitution of a military tribunal by General Ziaur Rahman’s martial law regime in 1976,to try the detained Col Abu Taher and his associates. It also dismissed Taher’s subsequent trial and execution in July of that year as a farce,and noted that Taher and everyone else tried in 1976 would henceforth be considered patriots rather than as traitors. The verdict came against the background of a writ petition filed by members of his family along with three other writs filed by political figures associated with Taher challenging the validity of the tribunal and the convictions handed down by it.

The judicial decision is,happily for Bangladesh,a reversal of a questionable legal process undertaken by the Zia military regime nearly a year after the violent overthrow of the government of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15,1975. On November 3,1975,the majors and colonels who murdered Mujib and most of his family members (his daughters Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana survived as they were abroad at the time) also assassinated four detained political colleagues of Mujib — Syed Nazrul Islam,Tajuddin Ahmad,M. Mansur Ali and A.H. M. Qamaruzzaman — in Dhaka central jail. On the same day,the August 1975 coup plotters were overthrown by Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf,a hero of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971. Mosharraf also placed General Zia,then chief of army staff,under house arrest and took over as the new chief of staff of the army with his new rank of Major General. Only four days later,on November 7,soldiers of various units of the Bangladesh army,galvanised by Col Taher,revolted against Mosharraf and freed Zia. General Mosharraf and his fellow officers were murdered by Zia loyalists in the army on the morning of November 7,1975. General Zia seized power as Bangladesh’s first military ruler,albeit with Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem as a figurehead president of the republic.

Despite the fact that Taher and his adherents in the military had freed Zia,friction developed within days between the two men on the issue of a transformation of Bangladesh’s armed forces into a socialist-oriented Gano Bahini,or people’s army. Taher,at that point a leading figure in the left-wing Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal,a political party formed in 1972 by alienated former young supporters of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,advocated a revolutionary change in the structure of the armed forces through doing away with ranks and thereby with differences and distinctions between officers and general soldiers. While there is reason to believe Zia may initially have agreed with Taher,since his emergence from house arrest and subsequent rise to power depended on the latter’s links in the army,he soon decided that Taher and his followers needed to be put down. By the end of November 1975,Taher and a number of JSD political figures were in jail,with charges of sedition clamped on them.

In July 1976,a military tribunal put Taher and his associates on trial. From the very beginning,the trial was regarded with suspicion as Taher was not allowed to meet his lawyers until the very end,by which time the military regime had decided what the verdict would be. Taher’s lawyers were permitted to cross-examine neither the accused nor the witnesses in court. The trial was held in camera,with no one (and that included journalists) allowed into the court room.


The writ petitions filed by Taher’s family and his political associates last year ended up with some intriguing facts. The most glaring of these was the discovery by the court and the government that all documents and files relating to the case and trial in 1976 had mysteriously disappeared. Obviously,the assumption is that the Zia regime decided,in its questionable wisdom soon after the execution of Taher on July 21,1976,that it would be impolitic and risky to keep any trace or record of the trial.

Now that the high court has overturned the judgement of the military court and at the same time formally declared the military court and its acts to have been a legal anomaly,demands have arisen for General Ziaur Rahman,who was murdered in an abortive coup in May 1981,to be placed on posthumous trial. It may well be that in the following weeks and months,issues such as the killing of General Khaled Musharraf,the executions of hundreds of air force personnel following an uprising in the ranks in October 1977,the murder in June 1981 of General M.A. Manzoor following Zia’s death and the sentences of death handed down to thirteen army officers on charges of their complicity in the Zia murder in September 1981 will be revived in the public domain and Bangladesh could well see a spate of legal challenges that could once again place the Zia regime in the spotlight.

Bangladesh’s history since its liberation in December 1971 has been one of tragic irony. Having struggled for freedom and democratic governance,its people have more than once observed their nation sliding into chaos through repeated spells of military rule and a consequent narrowing of democratic space. The assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were not only protected by an indemnity ordinance formalised in the country’s constitution by the Zia regime but were also rewarded with diplomatic postings at Bangladesh missions abroad. It took 21 years for the indemnity ordinance to be repealed. The job was accomplished by Sheikh Hasina’s first government when it returned to power through the general elections of June 1996. Five of Mujib’s killers were executed after a normal process of trial and conviction in January last year. Five others remain absconding,with reports coming in of their periodic sightings in Pakistan and Libya. One died in Zimbabwe a few years ago.

The write is editor (current affairs) of ‘The Daily Star’,Dhaka