Noor Chowdhury has been living in Canada since 1996. via.
Noor Chowdhury is the most hated man in Toronto's Bangladeshi community. Since 1996, Canada has been keeping Chowdhury, accused of firing the bullet that killed Bangladesh's first President, alive and well. For 17 years been living peacefully in his Etobicoke condo, knowing that it’s unlikely Canada will ever send him back to Bangladesh, where he has been found guilty and faces death by firing squad.
The Bangladesh government, growing desperate, hopes Chowdhury's honeymoon will end soon, preparing to make its next move to have him executed on their own soil.
When the group of leaders working to bring back the accused killers of Bangabandhu, or “friend of Bengal,” as President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is affectionately called, last met, it was decided Bangladesh would appeal to the Canadian government once again to deport Chowdhury by identifying the 1975 killings as crimes against humanity.
In 2009, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh sentenced Chowdhury and 11 others to death for murdering Rahman and most of his family. Five of those convicted were hanged in 2010; another five, including Chowdhury, have avoided returning to Bangladesh, and one has died.
While he never showed up to his trial in Bangladesh or communicated with his court-appointed lawyer, Chowdhury has repeatedly denied the charges in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and publicly during an interview on CBC's The Current. He wasn't at Rahman's house that morning, he says, according to court records. He and his lawyer believe he's the victim of a political vendetta. His alibi? He was at the home of his wife-to-be, making T-shirts that would be used in a pro-Rahman rally the next day.
But it's the word of a man who's essentially running from the law against the collective word of 61 prosecution witnesses and confessional statements from three of his alleged co-conspirators, all of whose testimony combined places him at Rahman's house at the time of the murders.
Flash back to the morning of August 15, 1975, when around 5:15 a.m., five truckloads of men sped to Rahman's lakeside home. Heavily armed and clad in all black uniforms, the men stormed through the residence gates.
Rahman's two personal guards, asleep on the floor, awoke to realize something was terribly wrong. Minutes later, following a shootout with the troops, they lay dead, and a systematic search of all the rooms began for members of the Rahman family and for the President himself.
His older sons, Kamal and Jamal, tried to hold off the attackers, shooting at them with their own sten guns. Kamal was shot and killed first.
Elsewhere, Rahman desperately phoned whomever he could for help. The last call was made to Col. Jamil, Director of Military Intelligence, who rushed over, only to be stopped from entering the area and also shot dead.
It was army major Mohiuddin Ahmad, leader of the coup, who found the President, wearing a white kurta and grey lungi, pipe in hand, looking down at him from the top of the stairs. Upon seeing Rahman face-to-face, Ahmed, who had been determined to kill him until that moment, choked.
“Sir,” he stammered nervously. “Apne ashun.” Sir, please come.
Sensing a chance to stall, Rahman asked him what he wanted. Was it his intention to kill him?
“The Pakistani army couldn't do it. Who are you that you think you can?”
It was then that according to testimony Chowdhury stepped onto the landing, shoving the flustered Mohiuddin aside and firing his sten gun at the President. The bullets tore apart the right side of Rahman's body, the impact twisting him around, causing him to collapse face down and eventually slip down the stairs to the bottom. It was 5:40 a.m. and the president was dead, but the men responsible weren't done yet.
A blurry framegrab of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman laying dead, sprawled across the stairs in his home. via.
Searching every room, they found and massacred almost every member of Rahman's family, including his wife, his younger brother, and his second-oldest son Jamal. Kamal and Jamal's wives were found laying in bed, clutching Rahman's youngest son, Russell. They were pulled apart and shot, as was 10-year-old Russell, who had tried to hide behind the furniture.
The events of that day, at least as described in Anthony Mascarenhas' book, Bangladesh: a Legacy of Blood, were not investigated for 21 years.
Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmed, now thought to be one of the plotters of the massacre, succeeded Rahman as president and implemented the Indemnity Ordinance in September 1975, which gave impunity to everyone involved. All arbitrary measures taken by the government between August 15, 1975 and April 9, 1979 were made legal by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, enacted by General Ziaur Rahman, who would later become president. The amendment included the Indemnity Ordinance, and therefore, gave constitutional indemnity to the accused killers.
Many, including Chowdhury, who served in Hong Kong, Iran, and Brazil, were given diplomatic postings abroad. For over two decades, those suspected of being involved walked freely.
This all changed when Rahman's older daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who was in Europe when the murders took place, took office as Bangladesh's Prime Minister in 1996, vowing to bring those responsible for her father's death to justice. In November 1996, her government passed the Indemnity (Repeal) Act, allowing for a trial of those accused.
Naturally, since being granted visitor status in Canada in 1996, Chowdhury hasn't left. His application for refugee status has been rejected a total of four times and he faces a deportation order, but he's somehow still here.
In a twisted stroke of luck for Chowdhury, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2001 that we would no longer extradite alleged criminals who face execution in another country, except under “exceptional circumstances”—just 10 months before Rahman's killers were convicted.
“There's been no indication since of what exceptional circumstances might be,” says Robert Currie, a Dalhousie University professor who specializes in international and transnational criminal law. “But they would have to be something fairly profound.” Apparently murdering a president doesn’t count.
In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada extradited Atif Rafay and Sebastien Burns, who were found guilty of murdering Rafay's parents and autistic sister, but only after the death penalty was taken off the table. The family was beaten to death in their home with a baseball bat.
“This was a horrific murder, motivated by money,” says Currie. “So if that doesn't get you there, it's difficult to know what would,” he says, adding that people have called it the “Bin Laden” clause—if Osama bin Laden were to show up in Canada, he'd probably be booted out pretty quickly.
The Canadian government is right to proceed cautiously, says Currie. “The allegations are very serious, of course, but it is also clear that this prosecution is highly politicized due to its history,” adding that four of those accused were later exonerated due to lack of evidence.
Faruque Rahman's confessed his role in the President's murder and placed Noor Chowdhury at the scene of the crime. via.
“If he had been deported, tried and executed, and it came to light that he wasn't guilty, that wouldn't look very good on either government,” he says.
But there doesn't seem to be a shortage of incriminating evidence against Chowdhury. Many of those who testified were either members of Rahman's personal staff or army personnel; the Appelate Division ruling notes that most of the accused were ex-military men, and that the defence “failed to show any enmity with them or their motive to depose against them in support of the prosecution case.”
“The defence also failed to shake their testimonies in any manner. Rather, they virtually admitted their participation in the incident of murder by not challenging the testimonies of those witnesses,” the ruling says, calling the witnesses “neutral and trustworthy.”
But the Harper government, a law-and-order government, eager to deport anyone with any scent of criminality, is prevented by the Supreme Court ruling. Also, despite his conviction in Bangladesh, Chowdhury is still only an alleged criminal here because being tried in absentia isn't recognized as fair in Canada.
“He hasn't been convicted in a trial he's been allowed to participate in yet,” explains Currie. “We aren't protecting him from answering the allegations that have been made against him. We are protecting him from being executed because we view it as a barbaric punishment that's a violation of your rights.”
Chowdhury's lawyer, Barbara Jackman, who was unavailable for comment, told CBC the 1997 trial was unfair, as witnesses were reportedly detained and tortured. The fear of torture is why, she said, witnesses have been afraid to publicly speak out in support of Chowdhury, but this hasn't been proven.
Chowdhury won't be taken straight to the gallows as soon as he walks off the plane; he'll be given the opportunity to appeal, provided he can explain why it took him so long.
In July of 2011, Bangladesh's law minister Shafique Ahmed travelled to Canada to lobby for Chowdhury's extradition, subsequently claiming he'd be returned in no time. Two years later, Chowdhury remains in Etobicoke with his wife, Rashida Khanam, having applied for a pre-removal risk assessment, on which the decision is still pending.
"It's not a normal killing. Innocent people, including women and children, were killed in the massacre. So, such crime can be identified as crimes against humanity," said Shafique Ahmed to Dhaka journalists following the task force's latest meeting. The appeal is to be made by Bangladesh's foreign ministry as soon as Chowdhury's pre-removal risk assessment is completed.
Deporting people for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide is a possibility, says Currie. “I would say that might constitute exceptional circumstances.”
Many Bangladeshis have asked why Chowdhury can't simply be tried here; we've prosecuted people for alleged crimes committed outside of Canada before. Jacques Mungwarere, for example, is being tried for his involvement in the Rwandan genocide under Canada's Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, which allows for prosecution regardless of where an alleged war crime was committed, is one example.
But Canada doesn't exercise jurisdiction over crimes like those Chowdhury is accused of, explains Currie. His alleged crimes don't come even close to what the internationally recognized definition of crime against humanity is.
“What he's alleged to have done was clearly a political assassination, and sure, it was a whole family, but it would be stretching the definition of crimes against humanity to make it cover a situation like that,” says Currie. “I think it's an act of desperation on their part.”
Mohiuddin wasn't as lucky as Chowdhury. Instead of coming to Canada, he went to the States, where they aren't as sympathetic to alleged president murderers. When the US decided to deport him back to Bangladesh, you can guess where he begged them to send him instead. Canada.
But the US government sent him packing back to Bangladesh instead, and considering what ended up happening to him, Chowdhury's worries aren't baseless. Mohiuddin, along with four others, were hanged in January 2010 for Rahman's murder.
Mozammel Khan, Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh, actively fought against giving Mohiuddin asylum in Canada and is one of the many Bangladeshis who want Chowdhury out.
“Canada has an obligation as a member of the international community to uphold the rule of law and to send him back to where he committed the crime,” he says.
Khan says the possibility of extradition on the grounds that Chowdhury's is an alleged crime against humanity shouldn't be scoffed at—in 2002, a panelof the Immigration and Refugee Board did reject his status application on such grounds
The panel saw the coup as a “systematic attack directed against a particular civilian population (namely the then president's wife, children, family and members of his entourage), which made it a crime against humanity.”
Until there's a decision on Chowdhury's pre-removal risk assessment, he's in limbo, and the Bangladesh government can't act. But for a man who faces death in his home country and who will most likely never achieve legal status here in Canada, his life is pretty cozy. According to a Maclean's article from 2011, Chowdhury was living in a third-floor condo with his wife, could occasionally be seen planting flowers on his balcony, and didn't seem to have a job.
And until either country budges on its position, he'll continue to slip through this permanent legal loophole and live comfortably among us.
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