TO some Western observers, the scene stirred thoughts of Pontius Pilate deciding the fates of Jesus and Barabbas. "Do you want Mujib freed?" cried Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at a rally of more than 100,000 supporters in Karachi. The crowd roared its assent, as audiences often do when subjected to Bhutto's powerful oratory. Bowing his head, the President answered: "You have relieved me of a great burden."
Thus last week Bhutto publicly announced what he had previously told TIME Correspondent Dan Coggin: his decision to release his celebrated prisoner, Sheik Mujibur ("Mujib") Rahman, the undisputed political leader of what was once East Pakistan, and President of what is now the independent country of Bangladesh.
Five days later, after two meetings with Mujib, Bhutto lived up to his promise. He drove to Islamabad Airport to see Mujib off for London aboard a chartered Pakistani jetliner. To maintain the utmost secrecy, the flight left at 3 a.m. The secret departure was not announced to newsmen in Pakistan until ten hours later, just before the arrival of the Shah of Iran at the same airport for a six-hour visit with Bhutto. By that time Mujib had reached Londontired but seemingly in good health. "As you can see, I am very much alive and well," said Mujib, jauntily puffing on a brier pipe. "At this stage I only want to be seen and not heard."
A few hours later, however, after talking by telephone with India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi and with the acting President of Bangladesh, Syed Nazrul Islam, in Dacca, Mujib held a press conference in the ballroom of Claridge's Hotel. While scores of jubilant East Bengalis gathered outside the hotel, Mujib called for world recognition of Bangladesh, which he described as "an unchallengeable reality," and asked that it be admitted to the United Nations.
Clearly seething with rage, Mujib described his life "in a condemned cell in a desert area in the scorching heat," for nine months without news of his family or the outside world. He was ready to be executed, he said. "And a man who is ready to die, nobody can kill." He knew of the war, he said, because "army planes were moving, and there was the blackout." Only after his first meeting with Bhutto did he know that Bangladesh had formed its own government. Of the Pakistani army's slaughter of East Bengalis, Mujib declared: "If Hitler could have been alive today, he would be ashamed."
Mujib spoke well of Bhutto, however, but emphasized that he had made no promise that Bangladesh and Pakistan would maintain a link that Bhutto anxiously wants to have. "I told him I could only answer that after I returned to my people," said the sheik. Why had he flown to London instead of to Dacca or some closer neutral point? "Don't you know I was a prisoner?" Mujib snapped. "It was the Pakistan government's will, not mine." While in London, he said, he hoped to meet with British Prime Minister Edward Heath before leaving for a triumphal return to Bangladesh.