Shagufta Tabassum Ahmed agreed to study law on her parents’ advice, though she had no intention of becoming a lawyer. But that changed when her father was murdered. She told BBC gender and identity correspondent Megha Mohan about the 16-year fight for justice against her father’s killers.
The memories from the day I heard my father, Dr Taher Ahmed, had been murdered are both crystal clear and incomplete.
I remember the room, but I don’t remember who was in it. It was a Friday, but I don’t remember the time. I remember hearing the land line ring but I can’t remember who in my family picked it up.
It was my brother calling.
“They have found him. He’s been killed.”
I’m not sure who relayed my brother’s words, but at that moment the life I knew ended.
Our whole extended family had gathered at my brother’s house in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. He wasn’t with us, as the day before he had travelled six hours by car to Rajshahi, near the Bangladesh-India border, in search of our father.
My family began to talk at once, interrupting each other.
Who would want to kill him?
My father, the unassuming academic who would rather walk or take public transport instead of buying a fancy car, the university professor whose students seemed to dote on him, the husband who would share the food shopping and cooking while this was still unusual in Bangladesh, the dad whose hand I still held while crossing the street at the age of 18… Who could want such a man dead?
Two days earlier, on Wednesday 1 February 2006, my father had taken a bus from Dhaka to Rajshahi University.
He loved the bustling, vibrant campus, which had been our family home when I was young. We lived then in a small university-provided house on site and everything we needed was nearby. My brother Sanzid and I would walk to school in the morning and spend our evenings at playgrounds with the children of other university lecturers. We knew everyone on campus. It was a happy and safe pocket of the world for us.
Eventually though, Sanzid and I left school and moved to Dhaka. Sanzid began working in HR for a large multinational business.
On my father’s advice, which was incredibly prophetic given what was to follow, I studied law at university. I had no intention of becoming a practising lawyer; I thought maybe after my degree I would join an international non-governmental organisation or become an academic. But my father seemed to know what would be best for our family even then. I started university in 2006 and my mother came to live with me in Dhaka, as I settled in.
The week he died, my father had come to Dhaka to visit us all for a few days, leaving for Rajshahi early in the afternoon on Wednesday 1 February 2006. He called my mother to let her know that he had made it safely, and called again a few hours later, just before 9pm. I imagine he then prepared for bed. The police would later find his trousers hung from the bedroom door handle.
He would only be alive for a short while. The coroner later said he was killed before 10pm.
My father had returned to the university to attend a meeting about the future of a colleague, Dr Mia Mohammad Mohiuddin. Dr Mohiuddin had once been a close family friend, but his and my father’s relationship had come to an abrupt end not long before. My father had discovered several instances of plagiarism in Dr Mohiuddin’s work and had raised this with faculty staff. A meeting had been organised to discuss how the department would handle the controversy.
But my father did not turn up to that meeting. Nor did he answer our calls. The caretaker, Jahangir Alam, said he was not at the house – adding, curiously, that he had not seen him arrive at all.
Alarmed, my mother asked my brother to travel to Rajshahi that evening to search for him. The following day, 3 February 2006, my brother found my father’s dead body in the septic tank located in the garden of the university accommodation. This was now a murder investigation.
For a moment, the world’s eyes seemed to turn on my family. My father’s death was big story, a murder mystery, a true-crime whodunnit. His face flashed on TV and was printed in newspapers. International and local media searched for salacious details that would make a compelling story: good, popular, healthy men don’t die this way. There were many unanswered questions. Who would kill a respected university professor? Was it a personal grudge? Hardline Islamists? What did it say about Bangladeshi society?
In the midst of the pandemonium, I was in awe of my brother and mother. They sprang into action. My mother joined my brother in Rajshahi to assist the police, to work out a timeline and go through all suspects. Within weeks Dr Mia Mohammad Mohiuddin – the colleague my father had accused of plagiarism – the university accommodation caretaker, Jahangir Alam, and four others, including Alam’s brother and brother-in-law, were arrested and charged with my father’s murder.
During the trial, Jahangir Alam and his relatives testified that Mohiuddin had persuaded them to kill my father with promises of money, computers and university jobs. Mohiuddin denied the allegations.
In 2008, four of the men were found guilty at Rajshahi Lower Court and sentenced to the death penalty, and two acquitted. It should have been over then but it wasn’t. The four men appealed and the case was referred to Bangladesh’s High Court.
My mother and brother were working tirelessly to achieve justice for my father. By contrast, I felt useless. When the Lower Court judgement was made, I was barely out of my teens. My family had cushioned me all my life, and even after my father’s death, they insisted that my sole focus should be to complete university. They supported me, both emotionally and financially.
I persevered in my studies, trying to concentrate on my law books, yet I was still unsure what to do with my life. In 2011 my father’s murder case reached the High Court. The court granted bail to Dr Mia Mohammad Mohiuddin, the colleague my father had accused of plagiarism, and he was released for the duration of the trial. He had hired more than 10 lawyers and his defence was clearly going to be sophisticated.
Suddenly, my future snapped into focus. I knew what I could do with my life. I could use my law degree to help the prosecution’s case against my father’s killers. I was in a unique position, I straddled so many worlds. I could liaise with my family, and translate legalese documents for them. I knew the police, I knew my father, I even knew two of the accused. I could be essential to this case to bring about justice for my father.
I graduated from law school in 2012 and immediately started assisting the prosecution lawyers. In Bangladesh there aren’t many practising women advocates in criminal court cases, but everyone could see my value and I was a welcome part of the team. This was where I spent every waking moment. I turned down other cases in order to solely focus on my father.
In 2013 the High Court reached a judgement. It upheld the death penalty for Dr Mia Mohammad Mohiuddin, the colleague my father had accused of plagiarism, as well as the caretaker, Jahangir Alam. But the two other men, Alam’s relatives, had their death penalties reduced to life sentences. The judge determined that they had assisted, but that it was Mohiuddin and Alam who had masterminded my father’s killing.
But it still was not over.
The caretaker and his relatives had confessed to my father’s murder, all stating that they had been approached and paid by Mohiuddin. However, Mohiuddin’s lawyers lodged another appeal, this time to the Appellate Division of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court – the highest appeals court in the country.
I pored over documents, preparing papers, organising timelines, sketching out criminal profiles, talking with lawyers and keeping my brother and mother’s spirits up. Late nights, weekends, several Ramadans, they were all spent praying and keeping our goal – justice and peace for our father – in sight. I was now a determined lawyer with a mission, in my 30s, and no longer the nervous teenage girl whose world had ended in 2006.
But we were beholden to the timetable of the courts. We waited eight long years for the appeal case to be heard.
Mia Mohiuddin is a well-connected and wealthy man, his brother-in-law is an influential Bangladeshi politician. He had resources and a large team of lawyers at his disposal. These lawyers argued that he had had nothing to do with my father’s killing, that he and my father had always been close friends and that there was no physical evidence against him – it was all circumstantial. Never mind that the other three men gave detailed confessions or that his behaviour in the aftermath was not what you would expect of someone close to our family. Mohiuddin, the man who had visited us so often in earlier years, stayed away from my father’s funeral – he was the only faculty member who did not attend. Nor did he visit our family to offer us support.
The Supreme Court, with a backlog of cases, didn’t list my father’s case until the end of last year, and it was only on 5 April 2022 that the judges, led by Justice Hasan Foez Siddique, concluded that Dr. Mia Mohammad Mohiuddin was guilty of murdering my father, and upheld his death penalty.
After the judgement, I released a statement on behalf of my family saying that we were happy with the verdict, but I’m not sure “happy” is the right word. I don’t have the words yet to describe what these past 16 years have been like for our family. It’s been unimaginable pain. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever feel peace, knowing that my father died the way he did.
The struggle to bring justice for my father has dominated my adulthood, to such an extent that my own life has been on hold. People ask me if I’ll look to settle down and start a family of my own. I may after my father’s killers are dead. Then it may feel over. My father was my whole world, he was such a good, decent, simple and wise man.
What the killers did to my father, simply because Dr. Mohiuddin risked losing his job, is unthinkable, but for him I will carry on, fight for justice and live a good life.