BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia expected to receive a call from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the day of the BDR mutiny but one had never come, says a US embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks.
During a meeting with then US ambassador James F Moriarty on March 4, the three-time former premier was critical of the government’s response to the February 25-26, 2009 mutiny and saw a sinister motive behind the actions of its negotiators, reads the cable labelled as confidential.
Khaleda and her advisers present at the meeting argued that many lives could have been saved had the army been given permission to intervene immediately, adding that negotiating with the hostage takers was useless.
She also suggested that then home minister Sahara Khatun should have taken responsibility for the mutiny and resigned.
Dismissing the government claims that she was out of contact on February 25 and 26, Khaleda said she had been in constant communication with her party supporters. She also accused government officials of providing shelter to the leaders of the mutiny.
Moriarty sent the cable to Washington on March 5 noting that he had met with Khaleda “to stress the importance of national unity” following the BDR mutiny that killed at least 74 people including the chief of the paramilitary border force and 56 other army officers at its headquarters.
The BNP chief’s advisers Reaz Rahman, Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury and Maj Gen (retd) Fazle Elahi Akbar also attended the 90-minute meeting.
Moriarty expressed appreciation for Khaleda’s “conciliatory” statement during the mutiny in which she had offered to cooperate with the government.
Khaleda, however, complained that it had been difficult for her party to express its sentiments in parliament.
Then the opposition leader in parliament, she said her party members had not been allowed to speak and noted that the government-owned Bangladesh Television had refused to broadcast her remarks during the debate on a condolence motion.
Khaleda said she was uncertain what was happening, since the government had not kept the opposition informed of its actions regarding the mutiny.
Reaz and Shamsher Mobin noted that Khaleda had issued a very forthcoming statement at the beginning of the crisis. They complained that not only had the government ignored the BNP’s offer to cooperate but said officials were blaming opposition leaders for the mutiny.
Khaleda termed the government inquiry commission unacceptable, since it only included government officials and no members from the opposition.
Reaz Rahman noted that the commission was filled with bureaucrats who would be inclined to go along with whatever the government wanted. He stressed the need for a truly independent inquiry that would take a holistic view of the mutiny – including scrutiny of the government’s actions before and during the crisis.
He suggested that a parliamentary committee could play this role.
Reaz was also critical of the decision to establish parallel military and civilian inquiries.
He told Moriarty that the BNP joined in the universal condemnation of the mutiny but had questions about the government’s reaction. “There should be a review of the timing of the government response, the decision to negotiate, and the issue of granting a general amnesty.”
He added that the inquiry needed to look into the root causes of the mutiny, which he termed a “fight over the spoils” of corruption within the BDR.
Finally, there had to be an investigation into the many theories regarding outside involvement by domestic and foreign groups.
Moriarty acknowledged the need for a thorough inquiry into the mutiny, including the need to establish a timeline of events to determine when the officers were killed and when the army was in place to launch a rescue operation.
He said the US government had no information regarding outside support for the mutiny. He also cautioned against a rush to judgement before there was any available evidence.
Khaleda criticises action
The BNP chief vehemently criticised the government’s decision to grant an amnesty, particularly while the fate of the BDR chief and other officers was unknown.
She also questioned the prime minister’s decision to name a relatively junior member of her cabinet, then LGRD state minister Jahangir Kabir Nanak, as the lead negotiator.
Instead, she suggested, it could be other retired senior officers within the ruling alliance namely former army chief HM Ershad, Air Vice-Marshal AK Khandaker and Maj Gen Abdus Salam. “Any of these would have been a better choice than Nanak.”
Argument over army intervention
At Khaleda’s request, Shamsher Mobin recounted the example of former president Ziaur Rahman’s response to a Bangladesh Air Force mutiny in October 1977.
The mutiny had taken place during the hijacking of a Japan Airlines airplane and the ensuing hostage crisis involving senior Bangladeshi and Japanese officials.
“Despite the risks, Ziaur Rahman ordered a military operation which succeeded in ending the mutiny within minutes with minimal additional loss of life,” Shamsher Mobin said.
Similarly, Khaleda noted that she had not hesitated to use force to quash a mutiny by the Ansars in December 1994.
Shamsher Mobin speculated that members of the BDR’s internal security arm could have been involved. He noted inconsistencies in the information disseminated by the government in the aftermath of the crisis, for example the timing of the arrest of the alleged ringleaders.
Khaleda suggested that there might be a link between elements of the ruling coalition and the conspiracy.
She noted that extreme left parties had infiltrated the army in the early 1970s. This had culminated in November 1975 during the “sepoy rebellion” led by Col Abu Taher.
Khaleda again blamed the Awami League’s introduction of a one-party system in 1974 for beginning the process of politicisation of the army. “At that time, the three service chiefs were compelled to join the ruling party,” she said.
Maj Gen Akbar said the authors of the mutiny wanted to remove the army from the BDR in order to weaken Bangladesh’s defences.
He said: “Every Bangladesh war plan relies upon the BDR to supplement the army. This depends on the presence of army officers, without whom the BDR would not be combat worthy.”
He alleged that after the January 11, 2007 state of emergency, the Awami League wanted to weaken the army. “Moreover, because of her family history [Bangabandhu and most of his family members were assassinated by army officers], Sheikh Hasina had no love for the army.”
Akbar also said the plotters had not intended to provoke such a massive loss of life. Instead, the plan had been to simply hold the BDR director general hostage and then negotiate the army out of the BDR. The situation had gotten out of control once shots were fired, he observed.
He also questioned the relationship between the mutiny leaders and government officials, saying that there were phone records of longstanding contacts between the two groups in the run-up to the mutiny.
Akbar said he was worried about the BNP chief’s security as he feared that she could be the “next target” of those behind the BDR mutiny while her “security detail was totally inadequate.”
He said the consequences of any attempt against Khaleda would be dire. “There was a leadership vacuum at the top of the army, and many in the army saw Khaleda as the only natural leader left in the country,” said the security adviser to the BNP chief.