Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Prosecution Drama in Bangladesh

Prosecutors' ploy to release politicians

Source: UPI Asia Online
February 12, 2008

The people of Bangladesh are keeping an eye on court proceedings regarding corruption charges against former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The High Court ruled last week that the trial against her is illegal, since she is charged under the Emergency Powers Rules, yet her alleged crimes were committed years before the emergency rules went into effect.

She is one of a number of politicians -- including another former prime minister and dozens of former parliamentarians and Cabinet ministers -- facing corruption charges since the military-backed caretaker government took power a year ago, after imposing a state of emergency.

The politicians have not lost their claws and teeth, and are continuing to fight the charges in court, despite facing detention under the Special Powers Act of 1974 and the Emergency Powers Ordinance-2007, which has been supplemented by the Emergency Powers Rules-2007.

The latest surprise in Sheikh Hasina's trial is that the government has asked that a decision on the case be speeded up because of her "high social status." The attorney general's office reportedly made the request of the High Court Bench as the case was considered a matter of public importance. While the Constitution of Bangladesh declares in Article 27, "All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection under the law," the attorney requested special treatment based on social status.

It is not surprising that a military-backed government, by default, will be repressive as the present government of Bangladesh has been since taking power. But when an official from the attorney general's office makes a ridiculous argument before the top court, it raises questions. How did he invent the theory of social status to determine legal proceedings? What sort of credibility can he have as an upholder of the Constitution, when it appears he lacks basic knowledge of the Constitution?

This newly invented "theory of social status" from the attorney general's office reveals the poor state of the country's legal institutions. First of all, it is the Home Ministry that decides which charges should be included under speedy tribunal proceedings. Why? Why doesn't the law itself determine which cases should be tried under which laws and tribunals, rather than ministry bureaucrats, when the government itself does not seem to know what it should or should not do? Does this mean the judiciary is subject to the bureaucracy? What criteria do they follow to determine issues and cases?

Secondly, the attorney general's department and the prosecution apparatus are disposable; whichever party comes to power appoints its own people to allow them to make some money and do them political favors when necessary. There are no specific and credible recruiting procedures. In fact, the country has no recruitment policy for prosecutors except Article 64 of the Constitution.

It is unbelievable that politicians who hold government power in Bangladesh are "innocent" as far as corruption is concerned. But the appointment of attorneys and prosecutors without proper qualifications is a great debacle for the national justice system.

No one in the government has, so far, asked the attorneys to explain their "theory of social status," although it has paved the way for those accused of corruption to walk free. The state institutions will lose their moral strength to try those people, thanks to the substandard professionals within the attorney general's office and the prosecution branch of the judiciary.

Can the government foresee the consequences of failing to prove the corruption charges against the country's political giants? It may ultimately open the prison gates for key members of the present government. It may bring back destructive politics very soon, unfortunately.

The people of Bangladesh understand that a demoralized institutional system cannot bring about any miraculous change in the country. They want to know where the judiciary is headed now that its moral and legal deficiencies have been clearly exposed in public.

(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national with a degree in literature from a university in Dhaka. He began his career as a journalist in 1990 and engaged in human rights activism at the grassroots level in his country for more than a decade. He also worked as an editor for publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues and contributed to other similar publications.)

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