On a muggy Friday in August 1975, as pre-dawn prayers rang out from city mosques, five trucks sped through the still-dark streets of Dhaka on a mission to change history. Each carried a platoon of soldiers toward the lakeside home of Bangladesh’s president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man who had led the country four years earlier in its bloody secession from Pakistan. The troops may not have been clear on their purpose, but their commanders were. Shortly after 5:15 a.m., a handful of soldiers, led by two officers armed with Sten submachine guns, burst through the gates of Mujib’s compound, shot two guards stationed on the ground floor, and set about searching for the president himself.
At the head of the team were army major Mohiuddin Ahmad and a 24-year-old former major named Nur Chowdhury—part of a cadre of junior officers who had conspired to assassinate Mujib and install a military-backed leader in his place. Chowdhury, who had recently left the military, had joined the plot only two days before the assault on Mujib’s house. But he would prove pivotal in the events that followed: when the president unexpectedly appeared at the top of a staircase, clad in his white kurta with his pipe in his hand, Mohiuddin, according to numerous witness accounts, lost his nerve.
“Sir,” he croaked in Bengali, “please come.”
“What do you want?” Mujib replied derisively. “Have you come to kill me? The Pakistani army couldn’t do it. Who are you that you think you can?”
Mohiuddin repeated his plea several times before Chowdhury arrived at the landing, according to conspirators who later spoke to Western journalists. Rankled by the delay, Chowdhury brushed Mohiuddin aside and unleashed a burst of fire from his Sten gun. The bullets entered the right side of Mujib’s torso, spinning him round and sending him headlong down the stairs, his pipe still clutched in his hand. Thus began an all-out massacre that in Bangladesh remains a day of infamy: going from room to room, the assassins slaughtered seven other members of Mujib’s extended family, from his eldest son Kamal to two of his newlywed daughters-in-law. When Mujib’s wife, Fazilatunnesa, appeared at the top of the stairs, they shot her, too. After finding Mujib’s youngest son, 10-year-old Russell, hiding behind a chair, they hauled him to an outdoor guard shack and dispatched him with a bullet.
Two other armed groups were simultaneously attacking residences belonging to Mujib’s brother-in-law and nephew, and by the start of the workday, some 21 of Mujib’s relatives and employees were dead. The conspirators later admitted they feared the Bangladeshi public would rally around any family members left alive, and they were right to worry. The coup was successful but short-lived, and the country was thrown into a cycle of coups and assassinations before anything resembling democracy emerged. In the mid-1980s, one of two Mujib daughters who were in Germany at the time of the massacre would return to Bangladesh to assume her father’s political legacy. Sheikh Hasina Rahman won an election in 1996 and became prime minister, an office she holds today. One of her first orders of business was to track down the killers and bring them to trial. In January 2010, after 13 years of trials and appeals, and some 3½ decades after the bloody morning in Dhaka, the first five went to the gallows.
But not Chowdhury. The man who by every reliable account pulled the trigger on the father of the nation of Bangladesh lives peacefully these days in a third-floor condominium in Etobicoke, Ont., where neighbours describe him as a cordial, well-dressed man—happy to trade pleasantries, disinclined to chat. The 61-year-old father of two is often in the company of his wife, Rashida Khanam. In the spring, he likes to plant flowers along the rail of the couple’s south-facing balcony.
Each week Chowdhury pays a visit to immigration authorities in north Toronto, because he is technically under a deportation order, and must keep the government apprised of his whereabouts. “Technically” is the operative word. Canada doesn’t deport people to face execution. Or, more accurately, our Supreme Court doesn’t let us. It is a principle born of our aspiration to set a humanitarian example for the rest of mankind. But what happens when our aspirations frustrate justice in other parts of the world? This week, Bangladesh’s foreign minister, Dipu Moni, is scheduled to visit Ottawa, where she is expected to raise the Chowdhury case, arguing that Canada’s qualms about the death penalty means a far greater crime will go unpunished. Chowdhury, she might well point out, is the latest in a series of suspected assassins, war criminals and human rights violators to find shelter in this country, to the growing dismay of critics here and abroad.