DHAKA, Bangladesh – Bangladesh is closing its notorious 18th-century prison where sensational political killings over decades have targeted people on both sides of the South Asian country's 1971 war for independence from Pakistan.
The government wants to reopen the old, dilapidated Dhaka Central Jail as a museum to its tumultuous past, while giving its inmates better accommodations on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital. The new jail will have an uninterrupted power supply, a 200-bed hospital and a job training center.
"Such initiatives will help criminals change their way of living and their thinking as well as motivate them to return to normal life," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Sunday as she opened the new jailhouse on the capital's outskirts.
The Dhaka Central Jail, with architectural marks that reflect Mughal and British histories, has been chronically overcrowded. It now has about 8,000 inmates, though it was built to accommodate just 2,600. Inmates live in cramped, unsanitary conditions.
Authorities plan to move the inmates to the new facility over the next month. "We will do it slowly, as security is an issue that needs to be taken care of very carefully," said Col. Fazlul Kabir, additional inspector general of police (prisons).
Bangladesh was born in 1971 through a bloody nine-month war. The war broke out after military rulers in Pakistan, then West Pakistan, refused to hand over power to majority Bengali politicians led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina's father, after his party won most seats in a 1970 election.
Rahman was confined to Dhaka Central Jail numerous times before he became Bangladesh's founding leader. Many Communist politicians were also jailed, as were intellectuals who were involved in the nationalist movement.
"During the long political career of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, this central jail was his second home," Forman Ali, a former jail superintendent, wrote in a newspaper article on Saturday. Bangabandhu is an honorary title meaning "Friend of Bengal" given to him in a massive rally in Dhaka following his release from jail in 1969 in a politically motivated sedition case.
Rahman was assassinated in 1975 — killed along with most of his family members in a military coup. Killed in Dhaka Central Jail that year were four close associates of Rahman who were the architects of the country's independence war and advocates of secular Bangladesh.
Following the killings, military dictators amended the secular constitution, changing the country's course by creating more opportunity for politics based on religion. A banned Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, was reborn, and its top politicians returned from exile in Pakistan. The party openly campaigned against Bangladesh's independence and collaborated with Pakistani military.
When dictator H.M. Ershad ruled from 1981 to 1990, dozens of prominent student leaders were jailed, both from Hasina's Awami League party and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of her archrival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
More recently, the military-backed caretaker government that ruled from 2006 to 2008 arrested many top politicians from both parties and held them in the central jail before Hasina won elections in late 2008.
Hasina established special tribunals to prosecute war crimes committed during the 1971 fight for independence. Authorities say Pakistani soldiers aided by local collaborators killed 3 million people and raped 200,000 women that year.
At least four politicians have been hanged for 1971 war crimes inside the central jail. Six top leaders of a banned Islamist group that wants to introduce Sharia law in Muslim-majority Bangladesh also have been hanged there.