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A press briefing was held at the army headquarters on 19 January 2012 regarding the dismissed army major Syed Ziaul Haque. At the briefing it was said that two retired army officers had been arrested in connection with a failed coup attempt and Syed Ziaul Haque had managed to flee. That was all revealed at the press briefing then. Notices were posted in the newspapers along with his picture, calling for his capture.

Four years after that, the law enforcement agencies stated that Syed Ziaul Haque was involved in the killing of free-thinking writers, publishers and bloggers. At a press briefing arranged at the police headquarters in 2016, it was said that Syed Ziaul Haque was the military commander of Ansar Al Islam, the militant outfit of the Al-Qaeda ideology. From 2016 this organisation had carried out one killing after the other.

Head of Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime (CTTC), Monirul Islam, told Prothom Alo that they had heard Zia's name but no evidence had been available. In 2013, after Ansar Al Islam's spiritual 'guru' Jasim Uddin Rahmani was arrested, he told police during interrogations that Ziaul Haque would frequent the mosque in Bosila of the capital city where he was the imam. He also kept in contact through email. Then around three years after that on 21 February 2016, the police were confirmed about details of the organisation's structure following an operation in Satarkul, Badda. They came to know that Ziaul Haque was the military commander of this organisation.

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Syed Ziaul Haque is back in focus after the trial of the killing of six free-thinking writers, publishers and bloggers including science writer Avijit Roy. He has been sentenced to death in all the six murder cases. The question has arisen, where is he? Why is he not being caught?

CTTC deputy commissioner Saiful Islam told Prothom Alo, the law enforcement agencies have obtained a picture of the different places Syed Ziaul Haque had gone up till March 2020. The police had almost nabbed him on four occasions. He had been in Dhaka, Chattogram, Cumilla and Mymensingh. He had even tried to get a train ticket at Chattogram railway station before Eid-ul Fitr of 2019 to travel to Dhaka. He created a ruckus at the station when no ticket was available. He had said, "Dishonest people are black marketeering. Tickets are available but they are not selling them." A crowd had gathered around him at the time. The police only later found out that this person was Syed Ziaul Haque. He also stayed a long time Satarkul in Badda.

Zia had also stayed for a few months in Mymensingh at the home of Saimon, an accused sentenced in the Avijit Roy killing case. He had been to Tongi to attend a wedding. He slipped away before the search began. He was even in quite close proximity of the law enforcement of Dhaka but managed to flee.

The law enforcement agencies say that after the Ansar Al Islam members were arrested and surveillance stepped up, he no longer contacted them. Even if he is in contact with him, he is not using virtual communication.

A certain person who has seen Syed Ziaul Haque since his childhood, on Tuesday told Prothom Alo that one will have to stay at least two steps ahead of Ziaul Haque if he is to be caught. The law enforcement is lagging behind somewhat. He said Zia had been held in esteem by many even as a child. When he deserted the army, on 10 June 2012 Syed Ziaul Haque had mailed to the groups of Sylhet Cadet College, Bangladesh Military Academy's 41 Long Course and the Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST). This classmate of Zia who spoke to Prothom Alo, unwilling to disclose his identity, said he had received the mail.

He told Prothom Alo that he knew Zia from Sylhet Cadet College where they had studied together. Zia's father Syed Zillul Haque lived in Saudi Arabia with the rest of the family. Zia had performed Umrah around six or seven times before joining the cadet college. During the holidays, he would go to his parents in Saudi Arabia. He said they would feel that Zia was sort of 'blessed'. He would not study much, but was on the merit list of the SSC exam. He was the top athlete to Sylhet Cadet College. In the college the boys could use Tk 200 worth of coupons per month to buy what they want and everyone would spend this on Coke and chips. Zia wouldn't. He would give his coupons to his friends. He was very popular among the students but the college authorities had reservations about him.

Zia's classmate explained that there was a time for them to rest after lunch, before they would go to play in the late afternoon. It was also compulsory to pray according to one's faith in the evening. Zia would stay at Shahjalal House. When he was a student of Class 11, he arranged the afternoon Zohr prayers to be offered together in congregation. He began as the imam at the prayers and later also began giving lessons.

The college authorities did not take this well and tried to prevent him. This annoyed not just his followers, but the general students too. After all, he never forced anyone to join in. His eloquence drew the students to him. Unable to stop him, they authorities later made him the assistant house prefect.

In 2009 his friends realised that Zia's conservative views had gone to an extreme. That year they all attended the janaza (funeral rites) of Zia's wife. Before she was buried at the Banani graveyard, Zia gave a speech which shocked many. They began avoiding him after that
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It had been thought, as the best athlete, he would be made the games prefect. He was given a warning not to overdo things with religion. There was even talk of removing him from the post of assistant house prefect. Again the other students objected. In 1997 Syed Ziaul Haque passed the HSC exam with flying colours and left the college. He then joined Bangladesh Amy. He received the Sword of Honour there. He was still kept under surveillance, but he was not bothered.

Zia's classmate went on to say around 2008 Zia told one of their cultural activist friends to stop his cultural practice. The friend replied that each person had their own religious and political beliefs. He didn't want to discuss these matters.

Even though they were childhood friends, Zia cut down contact with him. In 2009 his friends realised that Zia's conservative views had gone to an extreme. That year they all attended the janaza (funeral rites) of Zia's wife. Before she was buried at the Banani graveyard, Zia gave a speech which shocked many. They began avoiding him after that.

Within 40 days of his wife's death, he remarried. He has two children through this second marriage. But he does not contact his friends or family. He even stopped his habit of sending sudden emails.

Police sources said that they have renewed their efforts to arrest Zia. CTTC chief Monirul Islam told Prothom Alo that the police were going all out to arrest the dismissed army major Zia. On Tuesday the police met with his father-in-law in Dhaka. His father-in-law, a retired justice, told them that Zia's son was with them, but Zia did not inquire after him. The father-in-law resorted to the court to become the child's legal guardian. The police are trying to contact members of his family.

This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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