Thursday, October 16, 2008

Military invades Bangladesh's judiciary

Military invades Bangladesh's judiciary
By Rater Zonaki
Source: UPI Asia On-line
Date: October 14, 2008

Hong Kong, China — The judiciary in Bangladesh is being seriously undermined by the military, to the point that it can no longer carry out its functions. Judges and courts are subject to illegal, unconstitutional and even criminal practices.

Among the more serious recent incidents, two handmade bombs were discovered in the residence of Justice Sharif Uddin Chaklader, who until last week was head of a High Court Division dealing with petitions challenging detention orders against politicians and businessmen. In late September a bomb exploded in front of the house of Justice Tariqul Hakim, another Supreme Court judge. Luckily neither judge was injured.

Anonymous letters threatening assassinations were also sent to three senior lawyers – Barrister Rafique-ul Haque, Barrister Shafique Ahmed and Barrister M Amir-ul Islam – as well as the present and past presidents of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

Rafique-ul Haque, who is a former attorney general of Bangladesh, lamented the situation during an urgent meeting of the Supreme Court Bar Association last Sunday. “An army major sits in a room on the second floor of the Supreme Court building where no one is allowed to enter,” he said. He explained that this major handles the case list for the Supreme Court judge – meaning that only those cases the military-backed government approves of will be given a hearing.

Barrister Haque also explained that the chief justice has reconstituted the benches of the High Court Division, assigning junior judges to deal with sensitive criminal cases and sidelining more competent senior judges. It is generally understood that this was done under military pressure.

These incidents expose the vulnerability of judges and lawyers at the highest levels of the judiciary. Not even the Supreme Court of Bangladesh can confront the military authoritarianism in an organized manner.

These incidents have occurred whenever the military-controlled government has faced serious challenges from the highest levels of the judiciary, especially regarding enquiries into the legality of its actions in the past 21 months of emergency rule in Bangladesh.

The government, which grabbed power illegally, has no legitimate authority to rule the country. It is already unhappy with the decision of the High Court that declared its promulgation of ordinances to be beyond its constitutional powers. Also, under emergency laws, the current rulers have disallowed decisions by the Supreme Court on granting bail to certain accused persons.

It appears that over-ambitious high-ranking officers of the armed forces are behind these incidents. The armed forces of Bangladesh shamelessly believe that by invading the civil institutions they can achieve more, especially if a powerful institution like the judiciary is sufficiently suffocated. The people of Bangladesh seem headed for an even more disastrous era under the grip of the armed forces.

If the armed forces dictate to the highest judiciary, how can their abuse of power be curbed? Should the judiciary entertain or tolerate these ongoing military invasions? What role is the chief justice of Bangladesh playing to stop the humiliation of the judiciary at the hands of the military? Why is the lawyers' community silent while its professional dignity and sanctity are under serious threat? Why does the Supreme Court not hold the armed forces accountable for grabbing power and occupying civil institutions illegally?

People who are aware of the situation in Bangladesh know that corruption and abuse of power with blanket impunity are among the biggest setbacks to the country's journey toward democratic stability. At the same time, the existing system allows people to become involved in corruption, either by choice or by force, due to the lack of transparency and accountability by civil servants and politicians who are close to the military rulers.

This does not mean that only a few members of a specific professional community are responsible for leading the country toward disaster or capable of improving things overnight.

Officers of the armed forces are accustomed to taking orders and following commands. However, such practices are useless in civil institutions. Many decisions taken by the military in civilian circumstances are not based on rationality or on a constructive assessment of the consequences of these decisions. This is true because the military officers have no respect for civilians and civil institutions. Most people agree that the armed forces are absolutely incompetent to solve civil problems by adopting military rules and regulations.

The Bangladeshis and the international community who are committed to the rule of law should think seriously whether it is time to remain silent or to act to ensure the survival of Bangladesh's judiciary and other civil institutions. Remaining silent could kill all hope of justice ever being restored to its rightful place in Bangladesh.
(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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