PRESIDENTIAL CLEMENCY

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But, will the people forgive the President..?

By rahnuma ahmed

The president has granted clemency to AHM Biplob, son of Laxmipur ruling party leader Abu Taher, a death row inmate, convicted of kidnapping and murdering advocate Nurul Islam on September 18, 2000, who was then organising secretary of Laxmipur BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party).

But will the people forgive the President? This is the question that grips politicians, lawyers, intellectuals and activists as they discuss and debate, that arouses common people’s passions as they argue and pass judgment, even those who are opposed to the death penalty in principle, as I am. The ruling party’s electoral pledge to establish the rule of law now rings hollow. Absolutely. Finally.

Since July 14, when presidential clemency was granted to Biplob.

Ruling party leaders insist that president Zillur Rahman has acted in accordance with his constitutional powers. Part IV, section 49 says, “The President shall have [the] power to grant pardons, reprieves and respites and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority.”

But surely presidential pardons must necessarily be exercised with discretion? With caution? Only in cases where there is reasonable ground to assume that a miscarriage of justice has occurred? To prevent it from happening?

That, however, is not the case. The truth can no longer be hidden. It has been exposed as it was bound to, revealing the corrupt arrogance of ruling party talking heads who prove yet again to be blind to the absolute misery of common people devastated ever more by killings. By senseless road accidents.  By sexual assaultsrapes, mob attacks leading to deaths. By extra-judicial killings.

By cover-ups in the making which criminalise innocent people. Limon, a 16 year-old Jhalokathi college student whose leg had to be amputated after Rapid Action Battalion forces shot him, was dubbed a `terrorist’ by the prime minister’s defence adviser. His father too, was labelled a `terrorist’ by the adviser who added, I’m a `hundred percent sure.’ And, no, chimed in the home minister, these statements won’t influence the police investigation. Nor the judicial process.

The truth has been exposed by the presidential clemency which has de-criminalised a convicted criminal.

He should be kept above politics, says senior Awami League leader Suranjit Sengupta. Criticism must be targeted at the home ministry and the government, not at the president.  Offered as a skin-saver—obviously the prime minister’s since constitutionally the president is bound to act in accordance with her advice—it expresses wishful thinking, for the clemency proves that the president is deep into party politics as he has intervened to save the life of a convicted criminal belonging to the ruling party, an act that offers us deep insights into how the ruling party actually rules. A knife that cuts away at the lies and hypocrisies. Of the prime minister. Of her cabinet ministers, and senior ruling party members. The Awami League is committed to establishing the rule of law, a lie repeated ad infinitum. Even after the clemency. No reprieve. Not from lies, no.

The judgment passed by M Hasan Imam, judge, Speedy Trial Tribunal, Chittagong on December 9, 2003 contained a description of the gruesome murder. The accused Biplob, Lavu, Jiku, Rinku and Shipon had thrown Nurul Islam down on Biplob’s bathroom floor. They had used machettes and scythes, they had hacked him to death. Nurul Islam had pleaded for his life, he had even promised to leave Lokkhipur (Kaler Kantho, July 22, 2011). His body parts had been dumped in the Meghna river. Of the 31 accused, 15 were acquitted. Five including Biplob were condemned to death; 9 were given life sentences, while 2 were given 5-year imprisonments.

Biplob was gone for 10 years. Absconding, nowhere to be found. Until this April 6 when he turned up and surrendered before the tribunal.  His father Abu Taher, Laxmipur’s `godfather`, appealed to the president for his son’s life. The presidential pardon was granted a little over 3 months later. Was Biplob’s return a strange coincidence? Or, had the pardon been worked out in advance? Had it been guaranteed? By who?

Biplob’s pardon is preceded by another last year, of 20 death row inmates, most of them Awami League supporters, termed a `wholesale’ pardon (The Daily Star, September 8, 2010).  They had been convicted of killing Jubo Dal leader Sabbir Ahmed Gama, nephew of former BNP deputy minister Ruhul Quddus Talukdar Dulu in 2004. How can death penalties be awarded to 21

Supreme Court Bar Association brought out a procession from the High Court premises protesting against the presidential amnesty for Mohiuddin Ahmed Jhintu, a BNP leader convicted of murder, and urging a full disclosure of documents. Mahbubey Alam, current attorney general, then head of the Bar Association, can be seen in the background (circled). August 08, 2005. PHOTO: STAR http://www.thedailystar.net/2005/08/09/d50809011915p.htm

persons for the murder of only one person? There are those who contend that Dulu must have influenced the trial process, but he refutes the allegation. But has a president ever granted such a wholesale pardon in the history of Bangladesh? Jurist Shahdeen Malik, described both the verdict and the clemency as “unusual.” Human rights activist Sultana Kamal felt that the grounds on which the clemency had been granted needed to be explained by the government. The law minister Shafique Ahmed thought otherwise, the law ministry had given its recommendation, it was up to the president to grant it if he desired. The home secretary Abdus Sobhan Sikder stressed that it is was the president’s “absolute power to grant mercy to any convict.” And what about the attorney general Mahbubey Alam? It was the president’s “right,” he maintained, expressing absolute disregard for history. His own.

When Mohiuddin Ahmed Jhintu, convicted of committing a double murder, was awarded presidential clemency during the BNP-Jamaat rule on January 13, 2005, the Supreme Court Bar Association, then headed by the current attorney general, had demanded that the pardon be scrapped. At a rally held on August 8, 2005, SCBA leaders had demanded that all documents should be made public, they had castigated barrister Moudud Ahmed, then law minister, for “flip-flopping” on the issue. But the SCBA, not content with these demands alone, had demanded the resignation of the ruling coalition because of its “misrule”; it had demanded the establishment of the “rule of law.” Advocate Sahara Khatun, current home minister, had also addressed the rally, which was followed by a procession (see photo) where lawyers had raised the slogan, Jhintu-Moudud dui bhai, ek dorite fashi chai (Jhintu-Moudud are brothers, they should be hanged on the same rope).

Jhintu’s tale is in many respects similar to Biplob’s. According to press reports, 3 others alongwith Jhintu had been awarded the death penalty. Only Kamal had been arrested, he was hanged immediately after the judgment. Jhintu, Shaheed and Manik absconded; in an interview given to Probashir Kontho, a Sweden-based Bangla newspaper (February 2004), the former Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal leader Jhintu had said, I was approached by the Ershad government, “we would be pardoned if we surrendered,” but I did not compromise on BNP ideology. When I hid in Bangkok during the 1980s, former BNP secretary general Abdus Salam Talukdar advised me to flee to Europe. Other details emerge from the interview, Khaleda Zia, then prime minister, had given him the task of re-organising the BNP’s Sweden chapter, she had reportedly promised him that she would try to get him `justice.’ Pictures of Jhintu with Khaleda Zia (2003), and with the former finance minister Saifur Rahman (2004) graced the pages of the newspaper. His photo with barrister Moudud, presiding at a reception hosted in the latter’s honorwhen he had visited Sweden, gave lie to Moudud’s claim that he did not know Jhintu. That such statements were false, they were aimed at defaming him (The Daily Star, July 29, 2005).  Jhintu returned to Bangladesh 23 years later and surrendered before the court. A mere ten days later, he received a presidential pardon.

Moudud Ahmed now—now, that Biplob has been freed—insists that Jhintu’s case is different to Biplob’s. The former had been tried in a “kangaroo court” (1982), referring presumably to former president HM Ershad’s martial law regime, in which he himself had served as a cabinet, and later, as the prime minister.

Who will ensure our saftey, asks Shahin Rashida Islam, Nurul Islam’s widowed wife. http://tinyurl.com/3nlc6g8 How can killers be so powerful? She raises yet another, more powerful, question: will the president be able to forgive his wife Ivy Rahman’s killers?  A reference to the August 21 grenade attacks on a rally presided by Sheikh Hasina, then opposition leader, in which 23 Awami League members and supporters, and Ivy Rahman, was killed.

Offering it was suicidal, a retraction would be wise. One can only hope that the president, and the prime minister, realises it.

Published in New Age, Monday July 25, 2011
(typos corrected in this version)

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