WHEN the news first broke, most journalists dismissed it as a rumour. They rushed from source to source to verify whether Col (retd) Farukur Rahman, the man who boasted of having pulled the trigger on Bangladesh's founder, had indeed been arrested.
A day earlier, the fledgling Sheikh Hasina Government had sprung the first surprise by shunting out of Dhaka two top Army officials—Maj Gen M.A. Matin, chief of army intelligence, and Maj Gen Subid Ali Bhuiyan, principal staff officer in the prime minister's office. The duo had become controversial for their alleged connections with Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Though some observers tried to link the two moves, most politicians chose to say little about the way the government was tinkering with the army.
When Army chief Lt Gen Muhammad A. Nasim was arrested for flouting orders in May, the two had played a key role in crushing the ensuing coup bid against President Abdur Rahman Biswas. Nasim was later freed after being sacked, but Matin and Bhuiyan's perceived partiality had already made them potential targets of Hasina.
The disbelief at the arrest of Col Rahman and his aides, masterminds of the 1975 coup in which Mujibur Rehman was assassinated, stemmed from a variety of reasons. For one, they can't be tried as they enjoy immunity under the law. Second, the timing is considered inappropriate. Sceptics feel the new government isn't stable enough to embark on such a daring act.
Moreover, Col Rahman is still considered a formidable force. "Yes, we did the job, but there's none in Bangladesh who can touch me," he is said to have often boasted. This, of course, was before the Awami League returned to power in June. Two of his aides, Col Khandker Abdur Rashid and Maj Bazlul Huda, fled the country immediately after Mujib's daughter Hasina assumed office, but the Colonel had seemed unperturbed.
What then could have prompted his arrest, just two days before the 21st anniversary of the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib and more than a dozen of his family members on August 15, 1975?
Apparently, intelligence reports said Col Rahman—with aides Col Shariar Rashid Khan and Major Mohammad Khairuz zaman, also arrested—was planning acts of sabotage threatening the lives of some top-ranking government leaders. Press reports say the security around some ministers and around Sheikh Hasina's relatives has been beefed up.
Though no details were available, newspapers quoted intelligence sources as saying the arrested men had been holding secret meetings to destabilise the government on August 15. The conspiracy theory was reinforced when some sophisticated arms and several passports belonging to Col Rahman were recovered in a predawn raid on his house. One such Pakistani passport seemed to confirm Col Rahman's links with intelligence agencies in that country.
The arrests have been done under the Special Powers Act, which empowers the government to detain anybody for a month (further extend-able) without specifying any reason. Since they're most likely to be granted bail by the high court once their detention is challenged, the government is contemplating framing charges against them for possessing illegal arms, says a home ministry official.
It's also trying to repeal the indemnity law so that they can be tried for the murder of 'Bangabandhu' Sheikh Mujib. "The nation will definitely try the killers and none of them will be spared," Hasina said in an exclusive interview with Bangladesh's largest selling daily, Ittefaq.
Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad has reportedly requested all countries not to provide shelter to the killers. Out of the six who were serving as diplomats, five have vanished from their respective posts abroad after the new government recalled them last month. Only Maj Khairuz zaman, who was head of the mission in Manila, responded to the recall order.
Even if all of them are brought back, they can't be put on trial till the indemnity law is repealed. For that, the government needs the support of other parties in Parliament to amend the Constitution. The opposition BNP, the biggest beneficiary of the 1975 political changeover, is unlikely to play ball. Gen Ziaur Rahman, the BNP founder who came to power after the coup, had indemnified the killers' action by an act of Parliament in 1979. It was he who had rewarded the killers with plum diplomatic jobs.
"The growing public opinion against the law," Hasina told Ittefaq, "would persuade other parties to go for a repeal".