The Nurul Islam case: How long before justice?

Mridul Chowdhury

Published by the Daily Star on 19 September 2009.

WE, in Bangladesh, are used to waiting. We have been waiting to find out the perpetrators of the BDR massacre, who were really behind the August 21 grenade attack, or who killed one of the most brilliant sons of our soil, Shah AMS Kibria. Our waiting does not stop at that — even for cases for which we know who the perpetrators were, we wait for them to be brought to justice. Some of the self-declared murderers of Bangabandhu and his family are still at large. So are the “war criminals” who attempted to eradicate the intellectual backbone of the nation in 1971, only to be riding cars bearing our national flag in less than a generation, as no less than ministers. We live in this ‘strange’ country where one can emotionally survive this uncertain and excruciating wait only if one knows how to wait, wait and wait only to see the reason for the wait becoming a distant memory at one point.

A similar waiting carries on in the case of Nurul Islam and his only son, Islam Tamohar, who succumbed to a ‘mysterious fire’ in their own apartment on the fateful night of 3 December 2008, weeks before the national election. Although Nurul Islam, on his death-bed, clearly testified that he believed that this was a planned attack on his life, initial investigations seemed that they were disregarding this crucial testimony and conveniently chucked it off as an ‘accidental fire’ caused by electric short circuit.

Soon after, one of government’s own reports concluded that it could not be a short circuit — the fridge from where the explosion originated was unplugged, and on top of that, the gas cylinder at the back of the fridge was completely intact. According to the CID investigators, the explosion originated from the front lid of the fridge, breaking its door into little pieces and leaving the floor tiles beneath the fridge and the part of the ceiling above it shattered. There are traces of a deadly but highly localized ball of ‘something like fire’ coming out that melted a TV, a ceiling fan and burnt part of a sofa — that were all in the vicinity of the fridge, but leaving everything else in the apartment, even plastic tablemats a few feet away from the fridge almost completely intact.

All of this evidence leads to more unsolved questions than credible answers. It was clearly not an ordinary fire, but what could have caused so much damage? It was not electric short circuit, but then what could have exploded from the front lid of an old, unplugged fridge while leaving its gas cylinder completely intact? There were no visible traces of burn in Islam Tamohar’s body, but then what exactly killed him?

It is possible that despite the government’s efforts, answers to many of these questions are not solvable with the technological know-how and resources that our investigation departments have. This case possibly requires arson experts who can analyze traces of the thick black soot that engulfed the entire apartment. This possibly requires various chemical tests for which adequate laboratory facilities may not exist in Bangladesh. This may just be a case that is hard to solve within our technological means.

However, the government has not reached out for support of other countries that have the relevant expertise and facilities. We earnestly urge the government to look into these possibilities. Dubbing the case as an ‘accident’ without plausible explanations to these queries is not acceptable. Nurul Islam gave his whole life to the cause of making this country ‘livable’ — it is our collective duty to carry on his mission, starting with finding out the root cause of the incident that claimed his life.

I sometimes wish I could ask someone why our history is riddled with unsolved cases of brutal acts. But I don’t really know whom to ask. Each successive government has largely failed to carry out these investigations properly, and I have always wondered why. Is it because of political expediency, is it the fear of uncovering some unpleasant or “politically incorrect” facts — kecho khurte shap ber hobe — or is it just plain indifference as more immediate needs take precedence?

Political partisanship of governments does not seem to explain it. For instance, many thought that the investigation of Shah AMS Kibria was not conducted fairly under the BNP regime because of obvious partisanship — he was not one of their own, and moreover, Kibria’s family members were implicating that some BNP leaders may have been involved as patrons. However, when the AL took over early this year, Reza Kibria, his son was expecting that the government would be more pro-active — after all, he was a former Finance Minister of a previous AL regime. To quote Reza Kibria from a recent Voice of America radio talk show, he said: “to my utter amazement, there is still no effort from this government to even listen to what the family members have to say”. Is this symptomatic of a larger and hidden political issue that we, the average citizens, will never be able to fathom?

I don’t know if we will ever get reasonable explanations. A cynic would say that we will surely wait, and wait, and wait. But will this government be an exception to the norm, with new and ‘uncorrupt’ blood in key ministries?


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