A special court in the port city of Chittagong, Bangladesh, sentenced (Jan 30) 14 to death. They were the principals in illegally importing 10 truck loads of arms, ammunition and explosives on April 01, 2004 by sea. The court ruled that the consignment was destined for Indian separatist/ terrorist organization, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) to wage war against the Indian state.
The consignment included 1,500 boxes containing 4,930 sophisticated fire arms of different types, 840 rocket launchers, 300 rockets, 27,020 grenades, 2000 grenade launching tubes, 6,392 magazines and 11.41 million rounds of bullets. They were unloaded at the Chittagong Urea Fertilizer Ltd. (CUFL) jetty, which was under the ministry of Industries.
Those sentenced and the positions they held during the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami government (2001-2006) are as follows: Jamaat chief (Amir) and minister for Industries Motiur Reheman Nizami, BNP leader and minister of state for Home Affairs Lutfozzaman Babar, National Security and Intelligence (NSI) director general Brig. Gen. Abdur Rahim, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) director general Rezzakul Haider Choudhury, former NSI director wing commander Shahabuddin, former CUFL general manager (Admin) Enamul Haque, ex-managing director of CUFL Mohsin Talukdar, and ex- NSI field officer Akbar Hossain Khan. Two others, additional secretary of industry minister Nurul Amin and commander in chief of ULFA stationed in Dhaka, Paresh Barua, were also sentenced. The verdict was delivered after permission from High Court division. Those sentenced can appeal against the judgment.
The enormity of the conspiracy can only be imagined considering the size of the arms consignment. Although there was regular illegal shipment of arms through Bangladesh to Indian insurgents, this was the biggest consignment ever. Paresh Barua was in Chittagong on April 01 to receive the consignment. Unfortunately for the conspirators, the trucks carrying the arms were discovered that night in a routine check by two police officers. These officers were immediately arrested and put in jail in a false arms case. The main case was sought to be buried quietly. Babar even issued a statement that the arms consignment had been destroyed by a court order.
Had the arms crossed the border and reached Assam the devastation it would have created is unimaginable. The ULFA also may have sold parts of the consignment to other Indian insurgents like the Naga NSCM (I/B), the Mizos and the like.
Initial movement in the case was seen after the army-backed caretaker government came into position in November 2007, when the Chittagong metropolitan judge ordered further investigations in February 2008 following a prosecution petition. The trial finally began in November 2011, after the Awami League led alliance government came to power. Judge Mojibur Rehman observed that a small cantonment could have been armed with the weapons seized.
The conspiracy, it appears, involved three countries with their respective governments’ covert approval-Bangladesh, China and Pakistan. It was established by the prosecution that the arms were brought from China. Because of close bilateral relations China’s name does not appear prominently in the case.
The Chinese government, of course, denies everything. It is, however, well known that periodically arms and communication equipment were sent from China to the Indian insurgents. The more frequently used route was through Myanmar, then Bangladesh into India. Or directly from Myanmar into India. But the consignments were much smaller than in the Chittagong case.
China traditionally assisted Indian insurgents openly in the 1950s and 1960s. It was basically for the Naga separatists especially the Thankul Muivah/ Issac Su group. The ULFA and other groups did not exist then. As soon as these groups came into existence to wage separatist wars against the Indian state, the Chinese connection was natural and inevitable. In the early 1980s in the post Mao Zedong era under Deng Xiaoping, China declared it had discarded the earlier policy of supporting nationalist movements in other countries. But in India’s case at least, covert involvement continued.
In one sense it can be said that the Chittagong arms incident was a Pakistani ISI covert operation. The Bangladeshi government elements under Prime Minister Khaleda Zia were eager partners and collaborators. The affinity between Khaleda Zia, her older son Tareque Reheman and the Jamaat-e-Islami is widely known and corroborated. Maj. Gen. Rezzakul Haider was virulently anti-India and would collaborate with anyone to damage India. Lutfozzaman Babar was the Bangladesh “manager” of the operation.
Babar emerged as the “dirty-works” chief of the BNP-Jamaat government. He was a close confidante of Tareque Reheman, the senior Joint Secretary of BNP. Tareque ran his business and politics from a building called “Hawa Bhavan”, in Dhaka. It became the virtual power center of the government. Babar’s connections extended to terrorist organizations like Jamatul Mujahidin Bangaldesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and others. With civilian security forces under him he could extend protection to these unsavory characters and groups.
The preparation of the Chittagong arms drop started late in 2001, soon after the BNP-Jamaat alliance came to power. The time taken goes to show the amount of work required for this mission. Forces had to be tied up in different places. Reliable arms supplier to be arranged. Covert shipment line established. Finally funding. Post Mao Zedong era, China did not give arms free, but at reduced prices to special friends.
According to NSI director (Security) Shabuddin’s statement to the police, he and his boss the DG NSI Abdur Rahim had several meetings with ISI officials. The ISI brought in a Dubai based telecommunication company, ARY for certain logistic support and funding channel. The ISI had influence over ARY, being owned by a Pakistani. ARY was also used previously for money transfer of the Al Qaeda, according to reports. Therefore, it had an established track record in this kind of work.
Maj. Gen. Rezzakul Haider, who succeeded Abdur Rahim as DG NSI, got into the operation seamlessly. His proximity to Tareque Reheman helped. Two ISI officers in Pakistan High commission in Dhaka, were also part of the operation. Paresh Barua was introduced to the main operations in 2003. Meetings used to take place in NSI safe houses and even in the Combined Military Hospital (CMH).
The day the arms consignment came in, both Paresh Barua and NSCM (I/M) leader Anthony Shimray were present in Chittagong. Hotel Golden Inn guest register revealed that 20 other Indian nationals were booked, but they vanished the day after the discovery of the arms.
Anthony Shimray generally lived in Manila, the Phillipines. He also had a residence in Dhaka, and used a Bangladeshi passport to travel to China periodically.
Paresh Barua had several Bangladeshi passports. Two pseudonyms used by him were Ahmed and Zaman. He may have had more aliases. Bangladeshi passports for these people were procured by the NSI.
Paresh Barua lived almost openly in Dhaka with his family. He operated several businesses including transport and hotels. He quietly left Bangladesh after BNP-Jamaat were cornered by the Army-backed caretaker government. He now lives in the hilly jungle area on the China-Myanmar border with a group of dedicated followers.
Jamaat Amir Nizami is also facing trial in the 1971 genocide case where maximum penalty is death. This case should be coming up for verdict very soon. Babar is also facing several others cases.
Some BNP leaders have called the verdict of the Chittagong arms case “politically motivated”. This was to be expected. Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami has condemned the death penalty for Nizami.
Strangely, Begum Khaleda Zia has remained silent till now. She has a lot to worry about. The case regarding the grenade attack on an Awami League rally in August, 2004 is pending and to be heard. Twenty two Awami League leaders died in that attack including Ms. Ivy Reheman, member of the party’s presidium. Information available till now in the media on the grenade attack confirms that the HUJI was used by BNP leaders to try and assassinate Sk. Hasina.
According to an investigative report in the Daily Star, October 27,2009 at a meeting at Hawa Bhavan (Tareque Reheman’s Hqrs) on August 14, 2004 it was decided that the Awami League was the arch enemy of the country and Islam, and its President Sk. Hasina must die.
Those attending the meeting, the daily said, included Lutfozzaman Babar, deputy Minister Abdul Salam Pintu, Prime Minister Zia’s political secretary Harris Choudhury, a fugitive killer of Sk. Mujibur Rehman, a top Jamaat leader, two HUJI founders, and one leader of Al Markajul Islami. The decision was unanimous- to kill Sk. Hasina. The next day, the same group sat again and decided to strike six days later at an Awami League rally. The chosen weapon was grenades, as offered by Babar. HUJI would conduct the operation.
Subsequent deposition by Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Sadeq Hussain Rumi, then the DG of Directorate General of Forces intelligence (DGFI), implicates Tareque and Khaleda Zia. There is a Pakistan connection which will come out in greater detail in due course.
The BNP-Jamaat axis has two targets. First is Sk. Hasina. She is the living symbol and spirit of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. She is also the driving force for secularism and democracy, and preventing a closer relationship with Pakistan if not a federal relationship.
The other target is India, simultaneously. India helped the break up of Pakistan and birth of Bangladesh. India is a friend of Sk. Hasina, the Awami League and secular and democratic Bangladesh, in that order.
When Sk. Hasina took over as Prime Minister in 2009, she promised to eradicate terrorism, and bring the killers of 1971 to justice. She is delivering on her promises. Sk. Hasina ensured that all Indian insurgent groups were rooted out of Bangladesh. This helped India to break the backbone of the ULFA.
On the other hand, the trial of the war criminals was set on track despite domestic and foreign opposition. One war criminal has been executed through diligent process of law.
It has been proved quite decisively that the BNP and the Jamaat and their small allies are enemies of Bangladesh. And they will continue to execute their agenda. The road ahead for the progressive forces led by Sk. Hasina will not be easy. But they must persevere.
(The writer, Mr.Bhaskar Roy is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com)