On a muggy Friday in August 1975, as pre-dawn prayers rang out from city mosques, five trucks sped through the still-dark streets of Dhaka on a mission to change history. Each carried a platoon of soldiers toward the lakeside home of Bangladesh’s president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man who had led the country four years earlier in its bloody secession from Pakistan. The troops may not have been clear on their purpose, but their commanders were. Shortly after 5:15 a.m., a handful of soldiers, led by two officers armed with Sten submachine guns, burst through the gates of Mujib’s compound, shot two guards stationed on the ground floor, and set about searching for the president himself.
At the head of the team were army major Mohiuddin Ahmad and a 24-year-old former major named Nur Chowdhury—part of a cadre of junior officers who had conspired to assassinate Mujib and install a military-backed leader in his place. Chowdhury, who had recently left the military, had joined the plot only two days before the assault on Mujib’s house. But he would prove pivotal in the events that followed: when the president unexpectedly appeared at the top of a staircase, clad in his white kurta with his pipe in his hand, Mohiuddin, according to numerous witness accounts, lost his nerve.
“Sir,” he croaked in Bengali, “please come.”
“What do you want?” Mujib replied derisively. “Have you come to kill me? The Pakistani army couldn’t do it. Who are you that you think you can?”
Mohiuddin repeated his plea several times before Chowdhury arrived at the landing, according to conspirators who later spoke to Western journalists. Rankled by the delay, Chowdhury brushed Mohiuddin aside and unleashed a burst of fire from his Sten gun. The bullets entered the right side of Mujib’s torso, spinning him round and sending him headlong down the stairs, his pipe still clutched in his hand. Thus began an all-out massacre that in Bangladesh remains a day of infamy: going from room to room, the assassins slaughtered seven other members of Mujib’s extended family, from his eldest son Kamal to two of his newlywed daughters-in-law. When Mujib’s wife, Fazilatunnesa, appeared at the top of the stairs, they shot her, too. After finding Mujib’s youngest son, 10-year-old Russell, hiding behind a chair, they hauled him to an outdoor guard shack and dispatched him with a bullet.
Two other armed groups were simultaneously attacking residences belonging to Mujib’s brother-in-law and nephew, and by the start of the workday, some 21 of Mujib’s relatives and employees were dead. The conspirators later admitted they feared the Bangladeshi public would rally around any family members left alive, and they were right to worry. The coup was successful but short-lived, and the country was thrown into a cycle of coups and assassinations before anything resembling democracy emerged. In the mid-1980s, one of two Mujib daughters who were in Germany at the time of the massacre would return to Bangladesh to assume her father’s political legacy. Sheikh Hasina Rahman won an election in 1996 and became prime minister, an office she holds today. One of her first orders of business was to track down the killers and bring them to trial. In January 2010, after 13 years of trials and appeals, and some 3½ decades after the bloody morning in Dhaka, the first five went to the gallows.
But not Chowdhury. The man who by every reliable account pulled the trigger on the father of the nation of Bangladesh lives peacefully these days in a third-floor condominium in Etobicoke, Ont., where neighbours describe him as a cordial, well-dressed man—happy to trade pleasantries, disinclined to chat. The 61-year-old father of two is often in the company of his wife, Rashida Khanam. In the spring, he likes to plant flowers along the rail of the couple’s south-facing balcony.
Each week Chowdhury pays a visit to immigration authorities in north Toronto, because he is technically under a deportation order, and must keep the government apprised of his whereabouts. “Technically” is the operative word. Canada doesn’t deport people to face execution. Or, more accurately, our Supreme Court doesn’t let us. It is a principle born of our aspiration to set a humanitarian example for the rest of mankind. But what happens when our aspirations frustrate justice in other parts of the world? This week, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Dipu Moni, is scheduled to visit Ottawa, where she is expected to raise the Chowdhury case, arguing that Canada’s qualms about the death penalty means a far greater crime will go unpunished. Chowdhury, she might well point out, is the latest in a series of suspected assassins, war criminals and human rights violators to find shelter in this country, to the growing dismay of critics here and abroad.
Sheikh Hasina herself declined to comment for this story. But in an interview with Maclean’s last March, she encapsulated the conundrum Chowdhury represents: “Canada is always a strong advocate for human rights,” she said. “But these killers, they have violated human rights. They are killers of women, children, so why should [Canada] keep him? Why should you keep any assassin? I don’t understand.”
The woman at the door looks scared. No, Nur Chowdhury doesn’t live here, she says through the chain. No, she doesn’t know where he is, and no, she is not his wife. Is she subletting the condo from him? A couple of seconds tick by. “Yes.” Does she have a phone number for him? “No,” she says, and with that, the door clicks shut.
If the Chowdhurys’ plan is to keep their whereabouts secret, they’ve got some work to do. The buzzer list in the condominium lobby bears Nur Chowdhury’s name, and it rings through to the same voice mail as Khanam’s listed phone number (the voice on the message is a man’s). The property is registered to both Khanam and Chowdhury—they bought it in 2005 for $185,000—and a neighbour across the hall says there is a couple living in the suite whose descriptions answer those of Khanam and Chowdhury. “They seem nice enough,” shrugs Cornel Nichifor, a construction worker. “The man’s maybe in his early 60s, South Asian, glasses. Last time I saw him was maybe a month ago.”
Chowdhury did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, and a message to his lawyer went unanswered. While he did not attend his trial in Bangladesh, he has maintained his innocence in Canadian court proceedings, saying he was not in the Mujib household at the time of the shootings.
His circumstances aren’t posh, but by Bangladeshi standards, he hasn’t suffered. In an inflammatory move following the 1975 coup, the new government of Khandaker Moshtaque passed a bill indemnifying him and the other killers and, to keep them out of the reach of their political enemies, awarded them diplomatic postings. Chowdhury held senior jobs in several countries, including Brazil and Iran, through Bangladesh’s years under military rule. When
Sheikh Hasina came to power, he was the country’s consul general in Hong Kong.
This favourable treatment reflected the conspirators’ view that they had done their country a favour. By 1975, Mujib’s political honeymoon had long ended, and Bangladesh was in the grip of a devastating famine. Mujib had responded to growing political unrest by using his massive parliamentary majority to ban opposition parties and declare himself “president for life.” “He needlessly enslaved a nation which had willingly made him its father,” lieutenant colonel Farook Rahman, one of the coup leaders, told the Sunday Times of London a year after the massacre. “I engineered the coup to put the brakes on my country’s headlong descent into hell.”
But Bangladesh descended into hell anyway, undergoing two more coups, followed by the military rule of general Ziaur Rahman, who was himself assassinated in 1981. The trauma of August 1975, meanwhile, never faded. Mujib’s descendents—both biological and political—clung to the hope they would one day see the killers brought to justice, and the return of Sheikh Hasina in the mid-1980s gave them their chance. In 1996, she led her father’s old party, the Awami League, to an election win, and called 15 conspirators home from their diplomatic posts to face conspiracy and murder charges. Five had remained in Bangladesh or were extradited from other countries, while one had died of natural causes in Zimbabwe. The rest scattered to the winds.
A series of trials went ahead anyway, and in April 2001, 12 of the 15 were convicted and sentenced to death—five of them, including Chowdhury, in absentia. Over the next nine years, their joint appeal worked its way to the country’s highest court, and on Jan. 27, 2010, the hangman at Dhaka Central Jail went to work. Farook and Rashid Khan, the main organizers of the coup, were among those executed. So too was Mohiuddin, the man who couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger on his president.
Are the condemned men victims of a political vendetta? Amnesty International didn’t think so. Despite Bangladesh’s reputation for lawlessness and corruption, the human rights organization declared the trials to be fair and unbiased. Amnesty noted the presence of court-appointed lawyers for those tried in absentia (though, on principle, it opposes the death penalty). And while the Economist‘s local correspondent said the proceedings reflected a country “mired in dynastic rivalry,” the Mujib family has scrupulously avoided anything that might be construed as interference in the criminal proceedings. “The only thing my family is interested in is justice,” says Sajeeb Wazed, the prime minister’s 39-year-old son, and the most active Mujib descendent in the hunt for the killers. “I want to see Nur Chowdhury go back to Bangladesh and face the punishment that the Supreme Court of Bangladesh has upheld for him.”
From the outset, however, that punishment posed problems. Ten months before Mujib’s assassins were convicted in 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Ottawa cannot allow fugitives to be extradited without first obtaining assurances they will not be executed. Such punishment, the court concluded, would “shock the conscience” of Canadians and is tolerable only under “exceptional circumstances”—though the court didn’t define what those circumstances are. One year later, it went a step further, blocking the government from deporting people who have been found inadmissible to Canada, yet who may face “conscience-shocking” treatment if removed. In that case, which involved the accused Tamil terrorist supporter Manickavasagam Suresh, the treatment was torture. But the ruling is widely understood to encompass capital punishment, too.
Taken together, these decisions amount to a life preserver for Chowdhury, who had turned up in Buffalo, N.Y., in the summer of 1996, entered Canada as a visitor, and promptly made a bid for asylum. To put it mildly, he met skepticism. In a scathing rejection issued in 2002, the Immigration and Refugee Board declared the 1975 massacre to be “more than a political assassination,” but rather, “a carefully laid plan to eliminate a whole family.” The panel brushed aside Chowdhury’s alibi—namely, that he was at his future wife’s house on the night of the coup, helping complete a rush order of T-shirts to be worn at a pro-Mujib rally the next day. Chowdhury had every opportunity to advance his alibi at his trial, the board said, and numerous witnesses placed him at the centre of the assault on Mujib’s house.
Chowdhury fought the decision unsuccessfully in Federal Court, and three years later, the government obtained a court order to have him removed. But they might have saved the paper. According to sources familiar with the case, Canadian officials have since advised their Bangladeshi counterparts that Ottawa cannot deport Chowdhury so long as the death sentence hangs over him. “If Bangladesh wants this man back,” says Maria Minna, a Liberal MP and member of a Bangladesh-Canada parliamentary friendship group, “it’s incumbent on them to negotiate with our government an agreement that he will not be put to death” (spokespeople with the Department of Foreign Affairs declined to comment).
Trouble is, say senior officials at Bangladesh’s High Commission in Ottawa, Chowdhury has already been sentenced, and Dhaka can no more undo the decisions of its high court than Canada can its own. While Bangladeshi law does allow condemned prisoners to petition the court to have their case reviewed, or to seek clemency from the country’s president, such requests are rarely granted. And any climbdown could present problems for Sheikh Hasina, who was the target of a grenade attack in 2004 and is loath to look weak to her enemies. “Politically,” says one senior consular official, “it is impossible.”
So is Canadian high-mindedness standing in the way of justice abroad? Certainly, a growing list of wanted men have found shelter here. Joining Suresh and Chowdhury are at least three who face deportation under national security certificates due to alleged terror links; all are now out on bail as the government reviews its security certificate process, knowing the threat of torture or death in the men’s home countries would almost certainly block it from removing them. Canada has also been the chosen destination of Chinese fugitives like Lai Chang-xing, wanted on embezzlement charges yet still in Canada because of concerns he would be executed back in China. At least three others wanted by Beijing on financial charges remain in this country under similar circumstances.
Such cases make Canada look like a “patsy,” says former CSIS boss Reid Morden, and are precisely what critics foretold when the courts were grappling with the issue. “Every instance should be judged on its own merits, but that shouldn’t be a blank cheque to shield people due process in other countries,” says Morden, who as a junior diplomat in Pakistan during the 1970s had a front-row view of the turmoil in Bangladesh. “Not all other judicial systems are substandard to ours.”
Still, say civil liberties advocates, Canada’s position reflects its long-standing ideal that the world would be a better place without capital punishment, and is a key step in its abolition. “The international community, the UN Human Rights Committee, they’ve all taken a stand saying this is something they want to move away from,” says Sukanya Pillay, national security director for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “You can’t fight lawlessness with lawlessness.”
The compromise, says Kent Roach, a constitutional law expert at the University of Toronto, may lie in those as yet undefined “exceptional circumstances” the court spoke of in the Suresh case. The government could conceivably argue that cases like Chowdhury are different because Dhaka’s hands are legally tied—that Chowdhury will otherwise never answer for his crimes. “I could imagine the courts saying this is an exceptional circumstance because there’s no practical alternative to the death penalty,” says Roach. “When the requesting country is unable to give assurances the death penalty will not apply, you have this stark choice.”
Ottawa would certainly have a hard time proving that Chowdhury represents an imminent threat to Canadians, as Sheikh Hasina suggested last year (“For the safety and security of the citizens of Canada, they should send him back,” she said). Since he arrived in Ontario, he’s steered clear of trouble and, indeed, other Bangladeshis. Few in Toronto’s mostly pro-Awami Bangladeshi community have laid eyes on him, and Monir Hossain, head of the National Bangladesh Canadian Council, says he does not attend the community’s annual Victory Day festivities on Dec. 16.
Hossain, who lives in Montreal, has heard reports of Chowdhury visiting a former Bangladeshi army captain in that city named Kismat Hashem—one of the men acquitted in the coup trial. Beyond that, his life is a question mark. His daughter Anab, 40, and his son Shahriyar, 37, live in the U.S. But because he has surrendered his passport to Canadian authorities, his ability to visit them is limited. Cornel Nichifor, the man living across the hall, says Chowdhury does not appear to have a job.
Kelli Fraser, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration, declined to speak about the specifics of Chowdhury’s situation, citing privacy rules. But she said failed refugee claimants who cannot be deported are typically eligible to apply for work permits if they have no other means of support. Chowdhury has little hope of qualifying for permanent residency because of his criminal background.
All of which points to a tedious drift into old age for Chowdhury—punctuated by the odd reverberation from his criminal past. Mujib’s grandson, for one, isn’t about to let him go softly into the Canadian night. “I will spend the rest of my life trying to get him back to Bangladesh,” says Sajeeb Wazed, who has been touted as a future leader of Bangladesh. “Nur Chowdhury is either going to go back at some point, or he’s going to have to spend the rest of his life hiding in Canada, like the dog that he is.” CHARLIE GILLIS