Dark clouds hang over Bangladesh judiciary and democracy

Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha forced to resign following government 'smear campaign' against him.

 
Bangladesh’s Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha addresses a recent legal seminar in Dhaka. Aged 66, he has been forced to resign following a government character assassination campaign. (Photo courtesy of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh)
Dhaka: 

A Bangladeshi photographer in late July took a shot of a crow flying into a dark storm cloud over the nation’s Supreme Court building.

The photograph, beautiful in itself, came to be seen as both prophetic and highly symbolic.

This was because Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, 66, was subsequently forced to resign, two months before his due retirement, after a government campaign of character assassination.

Sinha, a Hindu in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and a member of the Monipuri ethnic group, served as the country’s top judicial figure from Jan. 17, 2015 to Nov. 11, 2017.

One of the bravest, most qualified and outspoken judges ever to serve on the Supreme Court, Sinha rose to prominence through a number of high-profile judgments.

They included upholding of death sentences for the killers of the country’s first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of current Prime Minister and Awami League president Sheikh Hasina.

Once considered a friend of the Awami League, Sinha fell out with the government primarily over judicial independence.

Skirmishing escalated after July 3, when a six-member Supreme Court bench headed by Sinha declared the 16th amendment to the country’s Constitution to be "illegal and unconstitutional."

Passed in 2014, the amendment restored parliament’s authority to impeach and remove Supreme Court judges for misconduct or incapacity.

The verdict striking down the controversial amendment triggered a series of virulent attacks against Sinha and other members of the judiciary by Awami League ministers and parliamentarians.

Publication on Aug. 1 of a full text of the judgment caused further uproar.

Observations contained in the judgment branded the country’s parliamentary democracy as "dysfunctional" and described parliamentarians as "immature."

Referring to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, the judgment noted that no nation should be ruled by only one person.

Ruling party leaders and pro-government activists accused Sinha of ridiculing the present parliament, which came to power in 2014 elections boycotted by the opposition.

Civil disturbances forced Sinha to go on a month’s overseas leave.

While away, Sinha was charged with money laundering and other corruption charges as well as so-called "moral turpitude."

Some other Supreme Court judges refused to continue sit with him presiding on the court bench.

Sinha submitted his resignation on Nov. 11 and left for Canada.

Critics saw the criminal charges against him as politically orchestrated.

This came amid a wider backdrop of political instability, not least 1975-1990 military rule and an ongoing bloodstained feud between the main political parties.

Bangladesh’s judiciary constituted a last-resort people’s hope for justice, even though there had long been attempts by both civil and military government to manipulate and control the top judicial body.

Although "patronage" allegiances abide, people still look to the courts as a final arbiter in a nation dominated by political and pecuniary elites.

Since 1999, the executive and the judiciary have been at loggerheads over the separation of its powers from executive government and the legislature.

This followed a landmark Supreme Court judgment ordering the government to ensure independence of the judiciary as enshrined in country’s 1972 Constitution.

Governments sought to tip the balance in their favor by making Supreme Court appointments based on the political inclinations of candidates rather than competency.

But Sinha tried to change the game play.

He strongly criticized political criminality, institutional corruption and undemocratic policies that undermined people’s constitutional rights.

He thus fell out with the people in power who were once friends and supporters.

The increasingly authoritarian Awami League has virtually crushed its archrival; the opposition center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Hundreds of prosecutions have been launched against its leaders and supporters, including its current head and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

The BNP’s decision not to contest the 2014 elections has been widely seen as a political blunder.

The BNP seems to be preparing to participate in national elections scheduled for December next year.

However, its organizational base is in tatters due to government suppression.

In the absence of a strong opposition, Sinha became the most serious threat to the government holding onto power. He once vowed to "bring back democracy" to Bangladesh.

Those who rule concluded that Sinha had to go.

His exit undermines democracy by weakening the judiciary.

The rise and fall of Sinha underscored Bangladesh’s dysfunctional politics and lack of respect for the rule of law.

The photograph of the crow flying into a storm cloud over the Supreme Court therefore retains its potent symbolism.

Source: UCAN

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