Likely removal of Bangladesh chief justice risks wider confrontation between government and judiciary

Bangladesh top judge worried about judicial independence

Bangladesh’s chief justice expressed fears for judicial independence in the country as he flew to Australia Saturday, after widespread speculation that he was pressured to take leave over a landmark verdict that went against the government.

Bangladesh’s Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha

Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha began a one-month absence from his role at the beginning of October, just months after leading the Supreme Court in scrapping parliament’s power to sack top judges – a move hailed by lawyers as a crucial safeguard for a secular judiciary in the Muslim-majority nation.

The ruling Awami League (AL) party probably intends to force the chief justice’s resignation by pressing corruption allegations against him, and intimidating the Supreme Court into ceasing its criticism of the government, some observers say.

On 15 October, Bangladeshi Law Minister Anisul Huq said that the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) would investigate money-laundering and corruption allegations against the Chief Justice; further details about the allegations have not yet been made public.

In a written statement issued before his departure, Sinha said he was a “bit worried about the independence of the judiciary”, expressing dismay over criticism he has faced from the government over the August ruling on judicial dismissals.

Sinha, who insisted he would return to Bangladesh once his leave ends on November 10, rejected claims by the country’s justice minister that his absence was due to illness.

“I’m not sick. I’m not fleeing. I’ll come back,” Sinha said, adding that his leave was “in the interests of the judiciary”.

“I’m fully well, but the way a political quarter, lawyers, and especially some honurable ministers of the government and the honorable prime minister are criticizing me recently over a verdict made me embarrassed.”

Bangladesh’s top bar association has repeatedly said Sinha was being forced to take leave.

“The Supreme Court Bar Association thinks he has done none of these things willingly,” said Zainul Abedin, a pro-opposition lawyer who heads the association.

“The government has done these activities after putting enormous pressure on him,” Abedin told AFP, accusing the government of hounding the judiciary.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought in a constitutional change allowing the parliament – controlled by her Awami League party — to remove top judges in 2014.

But that was overturned by the Supreme Court ruling in August.

Observers say forced resignation of the CJ has the potential to trigger a broader confrontation between the judiciary and the government over the latter’s legitimacy. Sinha reportedly faces 11 charges, including those pertaining to corruption and moral lapse.

According to a report in report IHS Janes Weekly, Bangladesh government’s dispute with the chief justice risks antagonizing the US, the EU, and key ally India, leading to reduced diplomatic support and economic aid. However, sanctions are unlikely, it said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said Mr. Sinha rejoining the office after his return is a “far cry”.

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