NY Times Special: He Tells Full Story of Arrest and Detention


Published on August 13, 2020
  • Details Image

The following article was published in the New York Times on 18th January 1972. 

Sydney H. Schanberg:

He kissed his weeping wife and children good-bye, telling them what they knew too well—that he might never return. Then the West Pakistani soldiers prodded him down the stairs, hitting him from behind with their rifle butts. He reached their jeep and then, in a reflex of habit and defiance, said: “I have forgotten my pipe and tobacco. I must have my pipe and tobacco!”

The soldiers were taken aback, puzzled, but they escorted him back into the house, where his wife handed him the pipe and the tobacco pouch. He was then driven off to nine and a half months of imprisonment by the Pakistani Government for his leadership of the Bengali autonomy movement here in East Pakistan.

That was a piece of his narrative today as Sheik Mujibur Rahman related for the first time the full story of his arrest and imprisonment and narrow escapes from death—and his release a week ago.

Relaxed and with little bitterness, and sometimes laugh ing at his good fortune, the Prime Minister of the newly proclaimed nation of Bangladesh talked in fluent English with a handful of American newspaper correspondents. He leaned back on a couch in the sitting room of the occasional official residence of his captor, former President Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan of Pakistan, who is himself now under house arrest in West Pakistan, and started from the beginning—the night of March 25.

His pipe and tobacco pouch lay on a coffee table in front of him. He said he had learned of a plot by the Pakistani military regime to kill him and lay it to the Bengalis. “Whenever I came out of the house,” he related “they were going to throw a grenade at my car and then say Bengali extremists did it and that was why the army had to move in and take action against my people. I decided I must stay in my own house and let them kill me in my own house, so that everybody would know they had killed me, and my blood would purify my people.”

That day, March 25, with reports mounting that an army crackdown was imminent against the popularly elected movement seeking to end the long West Pakistani domination and exploitation of the more populous eastern region, Sheik Mujib had sent his oldest son, Kamal, and his two daughters into hiding. His wife, keeping their youngest son, Russell, close by her, refused to leave their modest two‐story house in the Dhanmondi section of Dacca.

Sleeping in His Room

Unknown to them, their middle son, Jamal, was still in the house, sleeping in his room.

By 10 P.M. Sheik Mujib had received word that West Pakistani troops had taken up positions to attack the civilian population. A few minutes later troops surrounded his house and a mortar shell exploded nearby.

He had made some secret preparations for such an attack. At 10;30 P.M. he called a clandestine headquarters in Chittagong, the southeastern port city, and dictated a last message to his people, which was recorded and later broadcast by a secret transmitter.

The gist of the broadcast was that they should resist any army attack and fight on regardless of what might happen to their leader. He also spoke of independence for the 75 million people of East Pakistan.

Sheik Mujib related that after sending his message he ordered away the men of the East Pakistan Rifles, a paramilitary unit, and of the Awami League, his political party, who were guarding him.

The West Pakistani attack throughout the city began at about 11 P.M. and quickly mounted in intensity. The troops began firing into Sheik Mujib's house between midnight and 1 A.M. He pushed his wife and the two children into his dressing room upstairs and they all got clown on the floor as the bullets whizzed over the head.

The troops soon broke into the house, killing a watchman who had refused to leave and stormed up the stairs. Sheik Mujib said he opened the door of the dressing room and faced them saying: “Stop shooting! Stop shooting! Why are you shooting? If you want to shoot me, then shoot me; here I am, but why are you shooting my people and my children?”

After another flurry, a major halted the men and told then there would be no more shooting. He told Sheik Mujib he was being arrested and, at his request, allowed him a few moments to say his farewells.

He kissed each member of the family and, he recalled, said to them: “They may kill me. I may never see you again. But my people will be free someday and my soul will see it and be happy.”

He was driven to the National Assembly building, “where I was given a chair.”

“Then they offered me tea,” he recalled in a voice that comes mocking. “I said, ‘That's wonderful. Wonderful situation. This ‘is the best time of my life to have tea.’”

After a while, he was taken to “a dark and dirty room” at a school in the military cantonment. For six days he spent his days in that room and his nights—midnight to 6 A.M.— in a room in the residence of the martial‐law administrator, Lieut. Gen. Tikka Khan, the man the Bengalis consider most responsible for the military repression, in which hundreds of thousands of Bengalis were tortured and killed.

On April 1, Sheik Mujib said, he was flown to Rawalpindi, in West Pakistan—separated from East Pakistan by over a thousand miles of Indian territory—and then moved to Mianwali Prison and put in the condemned cell. He passed the next nine months alternating between that prison and two others, at Lyallpur and at Sahiwal, all in the northern part of Punjab Province. The military Government began proceedings against him on 12 charges, six of which carried the death penalty. One was “waging war against Pakistan.”

Sheik Mujib, who is a lawyer, knew he had no chance of be ing acquitted, so he tried delaying tactics. “I was playing a game with them too,” he said, smiling. “I was trying to get some time.”

Top Lawyer Demanded

At first, he demanded to be defended by A. K. Brohi, West Pakistan's most eminent lawyer, who is respected by all factions. Mr. Brohi was finally assigned to him and began preparing the defense. After several months the trial opened at Lyallpur, at which time Shiek Mujib did a sudden about‐face, announcing that he wanted to enter no defense, so Mr. Brohi could be sent home.

President Yahya Khan issued a new martial‐law order saying that Sheik Mujib had to have a lawyer whether he wanted one or not. “You see how they were ‘protecting my rights,’” Sheik Mujib related. “They just wanted a certificate to hang me.”

The trial ended on Dec. 4— the second day of the Indian Pakistani war that grew out of the East Pakistan crisis and ended in an Indian victory and the proclamation of East Pakistan's independence under the name Bangladesh.

“Yahya called all the members of the military court to Rawalpindi to draft their findings in a hurry,” Sheik Mujib said, “but then he got all busy with the war.”

The verdict, which might have looked somewhat ridiculous in the middle of a full-scale conflict, was never announced, but on Dec. 7 Sheik Mujib was moved back to Mian wall. On Dec. 15, the day before the Pakistani surrender in the East, General Yahya Khan's plan for Sheik Mujib, which he learned of the next morning, was set in motion.

Mianwali sits in the home district of Lieut. Gen. A. A. K. Niazi, who had replaced General Tikka Khan as commander in East Pakistan. On the 15th the prisoners, all of whom were from the district, were told that General Niazi had been killed by the Bengalis and that when their cell doors opened the next morning they were to kill Sheik Mujib, They agreed enthusiastically, he said.

At 4 A.M., two hours before the killing was to take place, Sheik Mujib related, the prison superintendent, who was friendly to him, opened his cell. “Are you taking me to hang me?” asked Sheik Mujib, who had watched prison employees dig a grave in the compound outside his cell (they said it was a trench for his protection in the event of Indian air raids.) The superintendent, who was greatly excited, assured the prisoner that he was not taking him for hanging.

Sheik Mujib was still dubious. “I told him, ‘If you're go ing to execute me, then please give me a few minutes to say my last Prayers.’”

“No, no, there's no time!” said the superintendent, pulling at Sheik Mujib. “You must come with me quickly!”

As they slipped out of the prison the superintendent explained the plot. He took his prisoner to his own house. about a mile away and kept him there for two clays. The war was ending and there was considerable confusion in official circles, and on Dec. 18 the superintendent told Sheik Mu jib that word had leaked out about him and he had to move.

The official, who was also superintendent of police in the district, then took the Bengali leader to an unoccupied house several miles away. He was there nine days when soldiers asked the superintendent where he was. The superintendent said he did not know. The officer in charge then told the superintendent that there was no reason to hide Sheik Mujib or be frightened because Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the West Pakistani politician who had taken power from the discredited generals on Dec. 19, simply wanted to see Sheik Mujib and talk with him.

Sheik Mujib emerged and was immediately flown to Rawalpindi, where he was put under house arrest in the Presi dent's guest house.

After a few days, Mr. Bhutto, the leader of the majority party in the West, who had collaborated with the army in the moves that led to the crackdown and repression in East Pakistan, went to see Sheik Mujib, who said he greeted him: “Bhutto, what are you doing here?” Sheik Mujib says he had learned of Mr. Bhutto's accession to power but was doing a little leg-pulling.

“I am the President and also the chief martial‐law administrator,” was the reply, according to Sheik Mujib. “A wonderful situation.”

Mr. Bhutto said Sheik Mujib recalled, that when General Yahya Khan was handing over power to him, he said that his one great regret was that he had not killed Sheik Mujib and asked if he could “finish this one piece of work.” Mr. Bhutto told Sheik Mujib that the general offered to predate the papers so it would appear that the execution took place under him. Mr. Bhutto refused.

Sheik Mujib said today that the reason he refused was largely political. Mr. Bhutto reasoned, he said, that if the Bengali leader was executed, they would kill the nearly 100, 000 Pakistani soldiers who had surrendered in East Pakistan and then the people of Punjab and the North‐West Frontier Province—where most of the West Pakistani troops come from—would blame Mr. Bhutto and rise against his Government.

Sheik Mujib said that Mr. Bhutto kept pressing him to enter into negotiations to retain some link, no matter how tenuous, between the two Pakistani regions.

‘You Are Not; I Am’

“I told him I had to know one thing first—am I free or not?” Sheik Mujib said. “If I'm free, let me go. If I'm not, I cannot talk.”

“You're free,” he quoted Mr. Bhutto as saying, “but I need a few days before I can let you go.”

Despite the promise of freedom, Sheik Mujib said, he did not discuss substantive matters with Mr. Bhutto.

At another point, when Mr. Bhutto had been contending that the two wings were still united by law and tradition, Sheik Mujib—reminding him that the Awami League won a national majority in the last election, the results of which were never honored — said: “Well, if Pakistan is still one country, then you are not President and chief martial‐law administrator. I am.”

On Jan. 7 the President went to see Sheik Mujib for the third and last time. The Bengali leader said he told him: “You must free me tonight. There is no more room for delaying. Either free me or kill me.”

Sheik Mujib said Mr. Bhutto replied that it was difficult to make arrangements at such short notice, but finally agreed to fly him to London. Sheik Mujib said that as Mr. Bhutto saw him off, he was still asking him to consider a political tie with West Pakistan.

Source: The New York Times