At 6:11pm on 20 August, 1975, US diplomat Herald Sanders called US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
"We have received this message from Dhaka. They [the new government of Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad who became president after the killing of Bangabandhu] have requested for our moral support. Can we respond in a friendly way?"
Kissinger weighed the deputy secretary's message and then said: I want to say we feel great to have recognised them.
Kissinger, who harboured a special kind of abhorrence to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then told Sanders to have somebody raise a question about US position on Bangladesh in the next day's press conference. The reason was to reach the message to the new government of Bangladesh that the US will be sympathetic to them and will recognise them.
About six and a half months before, Pakistan's prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had entered Blair House, the red-brick US president's guest house, at 2:25pm on 5 February, 1975.
In a lush green room painted with snaking branches of oak trees, he sat face to face with Kissinger.
Discussing South Asia, Kissinger wanted to know whether Sheikh Mujib can stay in power to which Bhutto answered in the negative.
Kissinger wanted to know whether the army would step in and Bhutto immediately said 'yes' and went on to say China wants to recognise Bangladesh, but Pakistan has requested China to withhold this decision.
This was just 190 days before the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Flash back to the Liberation War of Bangladesh, 1971. The people of this land were fighting a bloody war against Pakistan to achieve independence. The war was spearheaded by thousands of Bangali army personnel who had defected from Pakistan to fight against the Pakistan army along with the students, peasants and the general people at large.
Killers were suspected Pakistani operatives
The war was coming to an end in November as the Pakistan army was losing ground. At the end of November, a Bangali officer, Major Rashid, who was in West Pakistan serving the Pakistan army came to Dhaka on leave and joined the war. A few days later on 12 December, just four days before Bangladesh was liberated, another Bangali officer Major Faruk, who was posted in a middle eastern country, joined the war in Jessore under sector commander Major Muhammed Abul Manzur.
These two then played the master role in planning and orchestrating the killings of Bangabandhu and most of his family members on August 15. Now it is widely believed that they were Pakistani operatives. Many believe they were sent to Bangladesh with the mission of killing Bangabandhu only when Pakistan knew Bangladesh's victory was imminent.
Forty-five years after Bangladesh history's most gruesome political killings, the jigsaw puzzle of the crime is still missing its pieces. There are still unanswered questions of who was behind the master plot of the heinous crime. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina very recently has also said, "... the masterminds are yet to be found. One day they'll be identified, that's for sure."
Glimpses of a conspiracy
However, various declassified US documents and researches give us some glimpses of the groundwork to the killings.
The documents also shed light on what role then deputy chief of army Ziaur Rahman (who later became president of Bangladesh through a bloody coup) played and how much he knew of the plot. And how Pakistan became gleefully interested in the developments following the murder of Bangabandhu and immediately recognised Bangladesh on 16 August, a day after the killing of Bangabandhu.
In a statement, Pakistan said it had asked the members of the OIC and the third world countries to recognise the new government in Bangladesh which it called "Islamic Republic" of Bangladesh.
Elaborate initiatives were taken to send the killers out of the country, first to Thailand and then to other countries, mostly backwaters, as many western countries like the US and Germany refused to accept people who had blood on their hands.
Some members of the conspirators who were not directly linked to the killings but were behind the coup, got asylums.
Five days after the killings, Davis Eugene Boster, then US ambassador to Dhaka sent three cables in which he said Major Mohiuddin, one of the killers of Bangabandhu [later tried and hanged] and his wife came to the consular section and said his life was in danger. The US embassy allowed them to stay in the embassy premises until a decision came from Washington since his life was in 'danger'. In response, Kissinger said they will have to leave the embassy once the threat on their lives was over.
Khandaker Mostaq Ahmad, who became president within hours of the murder of Bangabandhu and who was also one of the accused of the Bangabandhu murder case but died before any verdict, also asked for asylum in the US.
Mostaq's principal secretary Mahabubul Alam Chashi told ambassador Boster on 3 November that the president [Mostaq] had directed him to inquire whether, if the situation so demanded, "certain persons in Bangladesh" could be given political asylum. He was talking in reference to the two killers of Bangabandhu Major Faruque and Rashid.
Boster told Chashi that "it was not our usual practice to grant asylum overseas and thus could not give him an encouraging reply."
Chashi then advised the ambassador: "That beyond the two majors, the president might wish to follow their course."
A surprised Boster asked him to repeat and Chashi "...reiterated that the president himself may wish to act at the same time and request asylum as well as some of the president's colleagues.", Boster reported to Washington.
Five minutes later, Chashi explained, partly in answer to Boster's questions, that what they had in mind was temporary accommodation within the protection of the US embassy, followed by a transfer to a third country, which need not be the US. He mentioned Britain. When Boster asked whether Chashi had made this request of any other country, he said he had not.
Kissinger assures Mostaq
Boster transmitted the message to Kissinger and sought his instruction. While Boster waited for a response from Kissinger, the killer officers left Bangladesh.
Kissinger advised Boster that "you may continue to assure president Mostaq that the US government remains concerned about his personal welfare. We are gratified that a resolution of this crisis in a way which will avoid bloodshed appears possible. You may tell Mostaq that he would be welcome in the United States if he desires to come here. At your discretion, you may also inform the president that, if his life should appear to be in imminent danger, we would be prepared to provide temporary refuge within the embassy."
Kissinger was however puzzled by the request that the US provide aircraft to enable the group to leave Bangladesh. "This does not seem necessary under the prevailing circumstances. The Bengalis have already demonstrated their ability to handle a forced exile in a humane and quiet manner. If those in control agree to send Mostaq out of Bangladesh, civilian and military aircraft are available to carry out the operation. If no agreement were reached on Mostaq's exile, the US government would not be able to provide a plane without the consent of the authorities," Kissinger told Mostaq.
Killers' contact with US embassy
That the killers and plotters had been contacting the US embassy long before the coup is now evident from various US diplomatic cables.
Rashid, who masterminded the coup, first went to the US embassy on 11 July 1973 purportedly seeking information to buy arms from the US, according to cables the US embassy sent to the state department.
The next day, Faruq Rahman, director of the armoured corps, turned up seeking information on armoured personnel carriers, light tanks and amphibious vehicles. Both men went there in uniform and without an appointment. They spoke with commercial official Jay Freres, US charge de affairs Daniel Newberry reported to Washington on 13 July 1973.
Rashid said the army had formed an arms procurement committee under the chairmanship of then Brigadier Ziaur Rahman. The Americans did not consider the request credible.
From then on, rumours of a possible coup started circulating.
Boster sent a cable on May 15 1974 to the State Department in which he said Faruq came to the residence of a US diplomat Gresham only two days ago and said the army was extremely disappointed with the government. Faruq also claimed he had come to meet Gresham at the direction of top army officials to get to know how the US would react in case the government was ousted.
More than a year later, in a cable to the state department on 20 September 1974, the US embassy talked about some coup plots involving pro-Chinese elements.
The report covered a JSD (Jatiyatabadi Samajtantrik Dal, a left-wing party that led armed insurgency against the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman)-organised poorly attended mass rally in Dhaka. "We suspect that the military plotters might be using JSD as a talking horse and hence cannot rule out the possibility that they may be considering alternative plans as well," the embassy wrote.
In a series of reports, the US embassy in Dhaka informed the state department that the Bangladesh military planned to stage a coup between March 21 and April 18. In response to the reports the department asked the mission on 20 march 1975 to give its views on the reliability of the information. "we want your thoughts on the ability of the army to take effective control over the short run, consequences for army control if Mujib is killed, jailed or forced into exile".
US Journalist Lawrence Lifschultz has described another startling episode in an article in which he said a week or 10 days before the coup, the CIA station chief in Dhaka, Philip Cherry and General Ziaur Rahman met in a private residence in Dhaka. Cherry could not have held this meeting or continued his contacts with actors planning to stage a coup unless he had authorisation, Lifschultz wrote. Since he had instructions from Ambassador Boster not to engage in any such contacts, the orders must have come from elsewhere. The CIA station chief would have been operating theoretically on orders from Washington or Langley (Langley is home of the Central Intelligence Agency), he said.
The British writer Christopher Hitchens devoted a chapter to Bangladesh in his book titled The Trial of Henry Kissinger.
He wrote: "ambassador Boster became convinced that his CIA station was operating a back channel without his knowledge…".
Killers discussed coup with Gen Zia, Mostaq
One of the killers, Faruq in an interview with journalist Anthony Mascarenhas on British television ITV in 1976, said he had discussed the coup with Ziaur Rahman, then deputy army chief on 20 March 1975.
Anthony asked: "Did you specifically tell General Zia that your intention was to overthrow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman?"
Faruq replied "Remember that I was meeting the deputy chief of army staff, major general, and if I bluntly put it that I wanted to overthrow the president of the country straightaway like that, there was a very good chance that I had to go about it in a roundabout way. Actually we came around it by saying that [there is] a lot of corruption, everything is going wrong, the country requires a change. "Yes, yes, let us go outside and talk in the lawns," replied Zia.
Faruq then said: We went out to the lawn and I told him that we are professional soldiers, we serve the country. We do not serve any individual. The army, the civil [service], the government, everybody is going down the drain. We have to change it, we the junior officers have already worked it out. We want your support and leadership; and he said, "I am sorry, would not like to get involved in anything like that. If you want to do something, the junior officers should do it themselves."
Rashid, the other killer, also talking to Mascarenhas indicated Zia's refusal to take part in the coup. Denied leadership from the army, the majors turned to Khondaker Mostaq, according to Rashid.
When asked if he had discussed killing Bangabandhu as part of the plan, Rashid said: "Not the killing, but it had been shown in a way that they are to be removed by force from power and it may lead to the killing of Sheikh Mujib."
Faruq and Rashid said they met several times with Mostaq and several other cabinet members to talk about the dire situation in the country and to understand their views on how to get out of the mess.
Faruq wrote in The Sunday Times on 30 May 1976: "Since I had no ambition for personal power, I agreed last August to a suggestion by my colleague, and brother-in-law, Colonel Abdur Rashid, that Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad, a senior politician, be made president to replace Mujib. At the same time, I personally insisted that Major General Zia be appointed chief of staff of the army… . In accepting the jobs we offered them, Mr Mostaq and General Zia endorsed our reasons for change."
So the changes were made. Then army chief General AKM Shafiullah was removed to be replaced by Ziaur Rahman a few days after the killing of Bangabandhu.
Killers and plotters of Bangabandhu had their unchallenged control over Bangbhaban, the official residence of the president, and Dhaka cantonment for two and half months after the killing of Sheikh Mujib. They first felt threatened when Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf moved with his group for a counter coup against the successors of Bangabandhu's assassination, which Mosharraf finally staged on 3 November, 1975.
Mostaq aided killers to leave country
Since then things started moving fast and it was decided that the killers had to leave the country. At a meeting at Bangabhaban, it was decided the killers would fly out to Thailand on a Bangladesh Biman flight which was permitted to travel over Burma by the Rangoon authorities at the request of the US.
Before departing, one of the killers, Major Shariful Haque Dalim phoned Mosharraf, "Sir, we have decided to leave the country. Myself, Nur, Pasha, Shahriar, Huda, Rashed, Rashid, Faruq, Mohiuddin, Sharful, Mazed, Kismat, Nazmul, Hashem and Moslemuddin, along with our families. We will be flying out tonight. Necessary arrangements are being made through the president's secretariat. We are sorry that we could not cooperate with you."
In Bangkok, Faruq told Reuters they left because the president wanted no bloodshed. The killer group had obtained a 15-day stay permit in Thailand.
Faruq informed the US and Pakistan embassies in Thailand that they intended to apply for asylum. On 5 November, the US embassy reported to Washington that the Pakistan embassy in Bangkok had "shown lively interest" in the Bangladesh officers' status."
Getting asylum was not easy
Although Pakistan recognised Bangladesh just a day after the killing of Bangabandhu, it now wanted to stay away from the bloodied hands.
Pakistan first secretary Khalid Nizami told the Reuters correspondent in Bangkok that he had told the Americans there was "no possibility that Pakistan would give asylum to the officers". Pakistan feared the situation in Dhaka was too unsure to accept them, risking disapproval of whoever was in power.
The Americans also opposed giving asylum to the killers. On 6 November, the US ambassador to India sent a note to the state department expressing his position. "I am glad to see that the majors who fled from Bangladesh had not yet applied for asylum in the US, and I trust that if they do, they will be firmly turned down".
Faruq intended to apply to the US or Pakistani embassy for asylum. The US embassy kept its contact with Faruq and his group members to a minimum, limiting direct contact to accepting applications for asylum.
The German ambassador in Dhaka Willi Albert Ritter told Boster that the majors were expected to seek asylum in his country but the Bangladesh embassy in Bonn had advised the German that any such request be denied because the majors were murderers. Ritter recommended against asylum.
The killers then wanted to go to Hong Kong but Britain refused this request. On 13 November, an American businessman and a former employee of Rashid's wife returned to Dhaka from Bangkok with a message from the majors – they wanted to return home. They had been in regular contact with Mostaq and Zia.
Meantime, as Thailand refused to extend their stay beyond 15 days. President Mostaq's secretary Mahabubul Alam Chashi and then foreign secretary Tabarak Hussain on 17 November discussed with diplomats in Dhaka about the possible asylum of the killers. They hoped the US would take the majors in, at least until more permanent arrangements could be worked out elsewhere. Or the US could request Thailand to extend their stay.
On 20 November, Faruque told the political councilor at the US embassy at Bangkok they were leaving for Libya in a day or two which was arranged by the Bangladesh foreign office. Their passports were brought to Dhaka and stamped with Libyan visas.
The killers left for Libya on 24 November on a Lufthansa flight via Athens. Bangladesh charge de affairs in Thailand Salehuddin Kaiser was at the airport to see the group off.
So, as the Western countries shied away from sheltering the killers, Zia's government started looking at African countries as their last refuge. One by one they started fanning out to countries like Senegal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Algeria.
But later on, they were posted to more prominent places such as Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines on foreign office jobs.
Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury wrote in his book how some of these postings were made. While he was the ambassador to Indonesia, killer Mohiuddin was posted at the Bangladesh embassy in Jakarta in 1982. General Moinul objected to his appointment because he did not want somebody involved with the killing of the head of the government in his office.
Later in 1994, during the tenure of Khaleda Zia, another killer Pasha was posted from Zimbabwe to Bangladesh mission in Australia and again Moinul, who was then the ambassador, refused to accept him.
Zia's adjutant general and PSO Brigadier Nurul Islam was deeply engaged in realising Zia's political ambitions. Nurul islam had gone to Libya in 1976 in an initiative to include the killers of Bangabandhu in the foreign service, Moinul wrote. Except Faruque and Rashid, who had been well ensconced in business in Libya, all other killers joined foreign service. Moin said he had advised Zia not to appoint the killers in foreign missions but his advice was disregarded.
Gaddafi pleaded for the killers
The most startling fact about the rehabilitation of these killers came from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She had said Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi had written to her in 1996 requesting forgiveness for her father's killers, Faruq Rahman and Abdur Rashid.
"Gaddafi in his letter cited a quotation from the holy Quran. I also replied to him with another quotation from the Quran... I said that if I would not try to bring the killers to law, I won't perform my duty as the daughter of a father," Hasina said.
[Sources: The Bangladesh Military Coup and CIA link by B.Z. Khasru; Ek General er Nirob Shakkhy by Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury; Markin Dalile Mujib Hottakando by Mizanur Rahman Khan; Who Killed Mujib by A.I. Khatib]