The great Chittagong arms haul and India

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The great Chittagong arms haul and India

Saturday, 08 February 2014 | Hiranmay Karlekar

leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, were associated in the smuggling into their country of arms meant for the separatist United liberation Front of Asom in India

On January 30, Judge SM Mojibur Rahman of the Chittagong Metropolitan Special Tribunal-1, sentenced 14 persons to death for involvement in the smuggling of 10 truckloads of arms into Bangladesh. The consignment, meant for the United liberation Front of Asom, was intercepted on April 2, 2004, from the jetty of Chittagong Urea Fertilizer limited, a company under Bangladesh’s Industries Ministry, then under Matiur Rahman Nizami, Amir of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, a partner in the coalition Government headed by Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Nizami was sentenced to death, as was lutfozzaman Babar, State Minister for Home in the same Government. Of those condemned, five were intelligence officers — Major-General (retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury, a former Director-General of Forces Intelligence, Bangladesh’s pre-eminent intelligence agency, a former Director-General of National Security Intelligence, Brig-Gen (retd) Abdur Rahim and a Deputy Director of the same organisation, Major (retd) liakat Hossain. The others sentenced were ex-NSI field officer, Akbar Hossain Khan, former CUFl general manager (admin), Enamul Hoque, ex-managing director of CUFl, Mohsin Talukder, former NSI director Wing Commander (retd) Shahab Uddin, smuggler and primeaccused Hafizur Rahman, Abdus Sobhan and Deen Islam. Paresh Barua, UlFA’s military commander and former Additional Secretary of Ministry of Industry, Nurul Amin, who received life terms besides death sentences, have been absconding since the arms consignment’s recovery.

The judgement merits attention in India because of the size of the recovery as well as the fact that the consignment was meant for UlFA. A report under the heading, “Cop in question to probe gunrunning/ Fertiliser factory security men receive threats/ OC denies involvement with smugglers” in The Daily Star of April 5, 2004, gave the full inventory — 690 7.62 millimetre SMG-T-56-1, 600 7.62mm SMG T-56-2, 400 9mm automatic carbine (model 320), 100 tommy automatic rifles, 150 40mm T-69 rocket launchers, 2,000 launching Tubes (Ugo Rifles), 150 sights for 40mm rocket launchers, 2792 magazines of SMG T-56-1, 2400 magazines of SMG T-56-2, 800 magazines of 9mm automatic carbines, 400 magazines for tommy rifles, 4,00,000 7.25x25 ball pistol bullets, 7,39,680 bullets of T-56 pistols, 840 40mm rocket heads of T-69 launchers and 25,020 NV hand grenades.

As the names and designations of some of those sentenced indicate, the Jamaat-BNP coalition Government was fully involved in the crime. In fact, during Sheikh Hasina’s first innings as Prime Minister (1996-2001), Ms Zia had described North-East India’s secessionist rebels as freedom-fighters who deserved every support. During her two terms as Prime Minister, her Government had extended unstinted assistance to secessionist insurgent organisations of North-Eastern India like the UlFA, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah), People’s liberation Army of Manipur and National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

Two cases — one under the Arms Act for illegal possession of firearms and the other under the Special Powers Act, 1974, for smuggling firearms — were doubtless filed with Karnaphuli Police Station April 3. Attempts to sabotage the investigations into both, however, began almost immediately. The report in The Daily Star of April 5, 2004, cited above, stated that Mr Ahadur Rahman, officer-in-charge of Karnaphuli Police Station, had been appointed as the plaintiff and investigating officer in the case, and that this had spread “despair among residents of the port city”. Witnesses to the offloading of the arms at the CUFl accused him and three of his men of helping the smugglers gang in bringing in the weapons and many residents of the port city feared that he might divert the focus of the probe in a wrong direction.

The first move in this direction was made by none other than lutfozzaman Babar who, arriving in Chittagong on April 3, 2004, and told journalists, “We believe these modern firearms were intended to run subversive activities in Bangladesh, as the consignment landed here”. Asked whether the arrival of the arms was linked to the Awami league’s setting of April 30 as the deadline for dislodging the coalition Government, he had observed, “Such a link cannot be ruled out altogether, but it is now subject to investigation.”

Not surprisingly, trials in both cases, which began in 2005, overlooked key factors like who brought in  the arms, from which country, their destination and how was a jetty of a state-owned body was used for unloading the weapons. The cases only implicated small-time local operators like labourers, truckers and trawler drivers and none of the powerful elements in the BNP-Jamaat-led coalition Government and intelligence establishments without whose connivance no shipment of the magnitude in question could have arrived.

And this despite there being a clear indication that there was much more in the matter that met the eye. A report headlined “Jane’s Report on Ctg Arms Haul: Weapons loaded at HK, S’pore headed for Indian Insurgents” in The Daily Star of February 28, 2005, cited a report in the Jane’s Intelligence Review, filed by Anthony Davis. According to the latter, the shipment involved two important leaders of insurgent movements from India’s North-East — UlFA chief Paresh Barua and the chief procurement officer of the NSCN-IM, Anthony Shimray.

That the Government knew who were behind the shipment but did not take action, is suggested by a report in The Daily Star of January 30, 2014, under the heading, “Khaleda took no action”. It quoted the public prosecutor, Mr Kamal Uddin, as saying that the DGFI’s “Director-General Sadiq Hasan Rumi has told the court that he informed PM Khaleda about the arms haul. But she kept mum and did not take any action.”

It was in the regime of the Army-backed caretaker Govern-ment that came to power in January 2007, that things began to move as they should and the Chittagong Metropolitan Judge’s court ordered further investigations on February 14, 2008. Muniruzzaman Chowdhury, senior assistant superintendent of Criminal Investigation Department and the fifth investigation officer of the cases, submitted two supplementary charge-sheets in June 2011, against 11 new suspects including Babar and Nizami. Paresh Barua, Brig Gen (retd) Rahim, and Maj Gen (retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury — who was later appointed as the DG of DGFI.

The Awami league-led Government under Sheikh Hasina’s prime ministership ensured that the prosecution did not relent and the guilty were brought to book — yet another indication that she meant business while promising that she would not allow terrorists to use Bangladesh as a base for action against its neighbours.

(The accompanying visual is of Matiur Rahman Nizami outside a court in Chittagong, Bangladesh on January 30. AP photo by Khurshed Rinku)

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