Bangladeshis in Southern California are roiled over the pending deportation of a man convicted of participating in the 1975 assassination of that country's first president. Mohiuddin Ahmed says he's innocent, but many of his compatriots don't believe him.
Frank Stoltze: Bangladesh's first president, Sheikh Mujib Rahman, is as important to many Bangladeshis as George Washington is to Americans. Mujib led the country to independence from Pakistan nearly four decades ago. Many Bangladeshis fondly call him BanguBandhu, or friend of Bengal. Twenty-seven-year-old Lavina Ula teaches English at East L.A. College. She came to the United States from Bangladesh with her parents when she was four. Not long ago, she visited her native country.
Lavina Ula: When you go into the streets of Bangladesh, there are still shrines to him everywhere, and they're still mourning for the loss because he was taken away, and I think that kind of made him immortal.
Stoltze: This is why many Bangladeshis are closely following the deportation case of Mohiuddin Ahmed, who stands convicted of helping assassinate Sheikh Mujib in a 1975 coup. An estimated 35,000 Bangladeshis live in Southern California in enclaves in North Hollywood, Long Beach, and Artesia.
At a recent Bangladeshi Festival in Los Angeles, Saidur Rahman was eager to talk about Ahmed. The 57-year-old manager of a Buena Park Shoe City store had his son interpret for him.
Saidur "Patel" Rahman with son Shamser Rahman translating: (Bengali, then English): He is a traitor of our nation. He killed the father of our nation, and not only that, he is behind the destruction of Bangladesh as well. Like our country is right now backward, it's because of him, people like that.
Stoltze: For two decades after the coup, Mohiuddin Ahmed worked as a Bangladeshi diplomat. His fortunes changed 10 years ago when the daughter of Sheikh Mujib came to power and put him and more than a dozen others on trial. Ahmed fled to Los Angeles and was convicted in absentia. The court in Bangladesh sentenced him to hang. Witnesses placed him at the scene of the assassination. Ahmed, In an interview from the immigration detention center in San Pedro, told KPCC the government pressured the witnesses, and maintains that he did not get a fair trial.
Mohiuddin Ahmed: I had nothing to do with the killing of Sheikh. I was given a responsibility to create a roadblock in one of main streets in Dhaka. I had no idea that he was shot.
Stoltze: But an immigration judge denied Ahmed political asylum, based on a U.S. State Department report that said he "received due process" in his trial. The American judge noted the coup involved the "brutal killing" of the president's family, including his 10-year-old son. He declared Ahmed a terrorist and a security threat to the U.S.
Sam Zarifi is with Human Rights Watch. He can't say whether Ahmed got a fair trial a decade ago. But he says the judicial system in Bangladesh is plagued with problems.
Sam Zarifi: Bangladesh's judiciary and police forces are regularly implicated in torture and extrajudicial killings.
Stoltze: A military-backed caretaker government rules Bangladesh right now, as the two main political parties vie for power. Those two parties are led by the daughter of the assassinated president, and the widow of the man who became president after the 1975 coup. Zarifi says Mohiuddin Ahmed is caught in the middle.
Zarifi: There is no question that this case and what's happening in Los Angeles are playing into the national drama, the melodrama I would say, that has to a great extent paralyzed Bangladeshi politics for the last 15 years.
Stoltze: Ishtiaq Chistie is with the Bangladesh Unity Federation of L.A. Like many Bangladeshis, he says he doesn't know the details of Ahmed's case. But the program manager for Edison says that, based on what he's read in the newspaper, Ahmed is guilty and should be extradited to Bangladesh.
Ishtiac Chisti: It is like putting our history in perspective and burying the hatchet, so to speak. Righting all the wrongs that were done at that time.
Stoltze: Mohiuddin Ahmed remains in an immigration detention center as the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reviews his case. His family is lobbying the federal government to allow Ahmed to resettle in a neutral third country and avoid going to his likely execution in Bangladesh.