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The curious case of Bangladesh's Chief Justice: Is the govt trying to arm twist the judiciary?

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 17 October 2017, 21:52 IST

Could you ever imagine a scenario in India where the political class managed to force the Chief Justice to go one leave?

This is a reality Bangladesh is grappling with at the moment ever since Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha left for Australia.

It is not just Sinha’s initial request for leave on account of illness which has aroused suspicion. Subsequent events have given more fodder to those who claim that the Chief Justice has been eased out by the Awami League government, which was upset when a verdict of his scrapped the 16th Amendment.

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders, who sit in the Opposition, claim it is a sign of desperation by the Awami League government, which fears that the party will get decimated in next year’s general elections.

Meanwhile, before Sinha boarded the flight to Australia, he parted with a short statement to the media as he left his house, where he said that he was not ill, but rather embarrassed by the government’s stance.

The next day, in a rare statement, the Supreme Court Registrar General claimed that Sinha is facing grave charges, including money laundering, corruption and moral lapses. The statement, according to reports in the Dhaka press, went on to say that he could not give any proper response when he was confronted by his colleagues at the Supreme Court.

The sequence of events

On 30 September, President Abdul Hamid invited five judges of the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division to hand over documentary evidence of Sinha’s alleged corruption. It is reported that only four judges turned up for the meeting.

The next day, the judges confronted Sinha over the allegations. According to their version, he was not able to give a satisfactory answer.

The judges in turn told him that they would not be able to share the bench with him till he comes clean. Attorney General Mahbubey Alam issued a statement claiming that Sinha’s statement to the reporters was misleading and that it forced the court to release a clarification on the charges against him.

"The public could have been in a dilemma about the situation if the SC could not have clarified its position. I think the SC took the right step," he told the media, according to a report.

However, it has failed to cut any ice with the Opposition. The timing for example is suspect. More so, the Dhaka grapewine has it that the Awami League government was expecting more adverse orders from the court if Sinha was allowed to continue.

Several disagreements

For example, the matter of 154 MPs getting elected unopposed is one matter which could have destabilised the government if the court was to order their election as illegal. Then there is the issue of a caretaker government since the term of the Awami League government will end in January 2019. The last elections had been boycotted by the BNP. This time, there is no indication that the Opposition will keep away from the

Chief Justice Sinha’s view was that the last Chief Justice ABM Khairul Haque’s opinion that a caretaker government was not necessary, was illegal and unconstitutional. This was perhaps one of the first signs of his many disagreements with the Awami League government. Sinha’s statement in 2016 had led to accusations by the BNP that AL was holding on to power illegally.

But, the tussle between Hasina’s government and Sinha, an Adivasi and the first Hindu to head the highest court, came to a boil over the latter’s view on 16th amendment which took away Parliament’s power to both investigate and  impeach judges.

This had led several from the Awami League suggesting that the judgment was a conspiracy.

While PM Hasina had asked the party cadre to hit the streets against the judgment, Law Minister Haq had clearly said that the judgment was not acceptable to the government.

“When everyone is accountable to Parliament, there is no reason why judges should be an exception to this,” former Chief Justice and Chairman of the Law Commission Khairul Haque had reportedly said.

Arguing that judges too need to be policed, the AL leadership was of the view that the scrapping the 16th amendment would give the judges a free run. But, it was not just the scrapping of the 16th amendment which irked the AL leadership. They were also upset over some of the remarks made by Sinha in his judgment.

Sinha had made comments on democracy, politics, martial law, the Election Commission, good governance, corruption and independence of the judiciary. He also made remarks like “no nation, no country is made of, or by one person” – which has been taken as a veiled reference to Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, beside reportedly speaking of how MPs were immature.

Desperate times

There have also been bizarre suggestions of a conspiracy to unseat Sheikh Hasina government which involved Sinha. One such report which came out in late September mentioned how Sinha, during his visit to Tokyo, before he arrived in Dhaka, had spoken to the Bangladeshi expatriate community about the need of a course correction of the
Bangladeshi democracy. According to him, it had several lacunae and he was determined to rectify them.

The report also talked about Bangladeshi intelligence receiving information that a group of top lawyers are going to move Supreme Court to declare the election of 154 MPs, elected uncontested in 2014, as illegal. If moved, this would lead to a dissolution of the Parliament, paving way for the army. It stated that Sinha was in touch with several top army officers. Dhaka is rife with rumours of several army officers being sacked after these reports.

But the BNP, has been unhappy over the court’s order scrapping it, there have been allegations since, that the government is trying to arm twist the apex judiciary. And that these are signs of desperation by the Awami League.

“The government is desperate to hold on to power at any cost. They know that they will get decimated in a fair election. They are perhaps preparing for another flawed election,” says Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, a senior BNP leader in Dhaka.

“The warrants against Begum Zia, the targeting of the Chief Justice are all signs of desperation,” he says.

Humayun Kobir, senior advisor to Tariq Rahman, Begum Zia’s son, thinks that the AL government has lost the confidence of people in all possible spheres. He says the way it handled the recent Rohingya issue is a good example. “These actions prove that PM Hasina is afraid of losing power,” he says.

Kobir says but the way Awami League has again initiated criminal proceedings against Begum Zia will not scare her. “She arrives in Dhaka tomorrow from London. The opposition is upbeat. It is not scared. Or why would she chose to return?” he asks.

First published: 17 October 2017, 21:52 IST