The event had almost faded into memory – how policemen opened fire on an Awami League rally at Laldighi Maidan in Chattogram 32 years ago, killing 24 when party Chief Sheikh Hasina was heading for the rally with a procession.
Hasina narrowly escaped the massacre committed during the regime of General HM Ershad as Awami League and other parties were waging movement against the military takeover by the dictator.
All these years later, a Chattogram court yesterday sentenced five former policemen to death.
Eight police officials were accused in the case, but three of them – Abdus Salam, Boshir Uddin and Mirza Rokibul Huda – have already died. The court acquitted the three and sentenced the remaining five. One of the five has been absconding since the trial.
The convicts are then Kotwali Police Station patrol inspector Gobindra Chandra Mandal, and then constables Mostafizur Rahman, Pradip Barua, Md Abdullah, and Momotaz Uddin.
Of them, Gobindra remains absconding since the trial began.
The judge of the Chattogram Divisional Special Judge's Court, Ismail Hossain, handed down the verdict in a packed courtroom.
"The five were also fined Tk50,000 each under Section 302/34 of the Code of Criminal Procedure while ten years of imprisonment were given under Section 326 of the same code," said Advocate Mesbah Uddin Chowdhury, public prosecutor of the Chattogram Divisional Special Judge's Court.
"The court pronounced the verdict after examining the recorded depositions of 53 witnesses out of the total of 168," said Mesbah.
On January 24, 1988, the Awami League organised a rally at Laldighi Maidan. Police opened fire on party Chief Sheikh Hasina's motorcade when it was on its way to the rally.
A total of 24 Awami League leaders and activists were killed in the firings and 200 more were injured.
The dead are Hasan Murad, Mohiuddin Shamim, Swapan Kumar Biswas, Robert Gomez Kishore, Swapan Chowdhury, Ajit Sarkar, Ramesh Boidya, Badrul Alam, DK Chowdhury, Sazzad Hossain, Abdul Manan, Sabuj Hossain, Kamal Hossain, BK Das, Pankaj Baidya, Bahar Uddin, Chand Mia, Mosor Dutta, Hashem Mia, Md Kashem, Palash Dutta, Abdul Quddos, Gobindra Das, and Md Shahadat.
Expressing satisfaction with the verdict, Nirupam Dasgupta, journalist and writer of Chattogram Gonohatta: Prottokhodorshir Jobanbondi (Chattogram Genocide: Testimony of Eyewitness), told The Business Standard, "Justice has been served after a long time. If the verdict was delivered earlier, it would have been better as many of those involved in the case have already died."
After the fall of the Ershad regime on March 5, 1992, late advocate Shaidul Huda filed a case with the Chattogram Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court on behalf of the victims.
The then Chattogram Metropolitan Police (CMP) commissioner Mirza Rakibul Huda was accused of ordering the attack.
The court, however, rejected the case as the accused were government employees at that time.
Later, the plaintiffs' lawyer filed a revision case with the High Court. The court then ordered the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to submit a report upon investigation.
The widely discussed case was revived when the Awami League government came to power in 1996.
The CID submitted two charge-sheets on January 12, 1997, and November 3, 1998, indicting Huda and seven policemen.
The seven are Gobindra Chandra Mandal, then patrol inspector of Kotwali zone constable Abdus Salam, Mostafizur Rahman, Pradip Barua, Bashir Uddin, Md Abdullah and Mamotaz Uddin.
On October 22, 1997, the first phase of recording the depositions of plaintiffs was done. Until August 14, 2000, the court had recorded depositions of 19 witnesses.
However, the depositions of only two witnesses were recorded during the BNP regime from May 17, 2001, to August 23, 2006.
During the rule of the army-backed caretaker government, depositions of 13 witnesses were recorded within a year.
Later, the case progressed at a snail's pace until it was transferred to the Chattogram Divisional Special Judge's Court on January 20, 2016.
On June 26, 2016, then housing and public works minister Mosharraf Hossain and Premier University Vice-chancellor Dr Anupam Sen gave their statements.
Besides, veteran journalist Anjun Kumer Sen and victim Ajit Sarker's wife Shefali Sarker testified the following month.
In the meantime, many of those involved in the case have died, including plaintiff Md Shahidul Huda, prime accused Mirza Rokibul Huda, Bashir Uddin, and assistant superintendent of police Abdul Kader (investigation officer).
Several witnesses, including Abdul Wahub and Awami League leaders Ataur Rahman Khan Kaiser, MA Manan, Abdur Razzak, Abdul Jalil and Akhtaruzzaman Babu, have also passed away.
Defence lawyer Barrister Sayeed Ahsan Khan told The Business Standard, "We have no faith in the court that delivered the verdict, and will go to the higher court. We walked out of the court on Sunday."
"Four of the eight accused were not present during the incident in 1988. Later, a judicial probe committee led by then Justice Aminur Rahman Khan was formed.
"In the probe report, it was mentioned that the four were not on the scene during the attack. The report somehow has gone missing from the case record," he said.
He also said, "We had submitted an application to the court to take steps for recovering the document, but the court rejected our petition and did not give enough time for placing argument. The court gave us only a day, and it is impossible to take preparations within that time."