Bangladesh: Ex-chief justice alleges he was ‘forced’ to resign’
In his memoir Surendra Kumar Sinha, who now lives in Canada, details the circumstances that led to his resignation.
Bangladesh‘s former chief justice was forced to resign last November after the head of the country’s military intelligence agency threatened him at the behest of the government, according to a sensational new autobiography.
In the controversial book, “A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights & Democracy”, Surendra Kumar Sinha says the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) told him to resign otherwise a businessman, held in DGFI’s secret custody for over two months, would suffer “serious consequences”.
The book details the background to his recent exit from Bangladesh and includes claims of government interference in judicial decision-making as well as false imprisonment.
Justice Sinha writes that he feared DGFI might not only “kill” the businessman Aniruddha Roy, someone he knew well, but also “members of my family”.
“I realised that it was nothing, but systematic and organised state terrorism … and their treatment was so cruel that it could be compared with none other than the Gestapo force of Hitler,” he writes in the book.
Dozens of people, including opposition activists, have been picked up and disappeared since the Awami League party led by Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2009.
The former chief justice, who now lives in Canada, told Al Jazeera that the DGFI was acting directly under the instructions of prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. “The DGFI chief clearly said to me, ‘Whatever I am telling you is the version of the prime minister. There is nothing between us.'”
He said that Hasina wanted him to resign after he refused her personal request in July 2017 to uphold a law, which sought to give parliament the power to sack judges.
The former chief justice claimed that the prime minister was “enraged” and “could not tolerate it” because she wanted the courts “to be used as instruments to serve the government’s purpose”.
He denied there was any basis to corruption allegations made against him which the government claim is the actual reason he left the country and resigned. It was only after I gave a judgment against the government that “they discovered I am corrupt”, he says.
“If the chief justice cannot get justice in Bangladesh, how can any other citizen get justice in the hands of this government,” he told Al Jazeera.
Based on ‘wild imaginations’
The prime minister’s office and DGFI have failed to respond to the allegations despite repeated attempts by Al Jazeera to contact them via phone calls and emails.
The country’s top legal officer, however, told Al Jazeera that the book was not “based on facts”.
“Justice SK Sinha has written the book basing on his wild imagination, not on facts. There is no need to take this book seriously,” Mahbubey Alam, the Attorney General, told Al Jazeera.
“The country’s judiciary is in an excellent shape,” said Bangladesh’s top legal officer.
He denied pressing Justice Sinha to rule in favour of the government.
“The judiciary of Bangladesh works independently. There was no pressure on SK Sinha. It was his own misconduct that forced other judges to decide not to sit with him on the same bench. SK Sinha, however, didn’t say much about his own misconduct in the book, did he?”
Anisul Huq, the law minister, refused to speak on the issue, saying “You will get to know about it next week when I speak to the press.”
The conflict begins
Sinha was appointed Bangladesh’s chief justice in January 2015, becoming the first Hindu to take up the highest judicial post in the majority Muslim country.
He presided over the Supreme Court when it upheld the controversial executions of five leaders of the Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, convicted of international crimes committed in 1971 during the country’s independence war.
The conflict which led to justice Sinha’s forced retirement started in 2016 when the government became concerned about how the courts would respond to a legal challenge to a new law – the 16th amendment to the constitution. The new bill had given members of parliament the power to sack judges, taking the responsibility away from the judiciary.
In his memoir, A Broken Dream, justice Sinha wrote that he was told by one of three High Court judges ruling on the law’s constitutionality that a military intelligence DGFI officer had “met him in his chamber and pressured him to deliver the judgment in favour of the government”.
However, a majority of the judges ruled the law illegal and the government appealed to the appellate division presided by justice Sinha.
On October 1, 2017, the day before the appeal ruling was due, Sinha says he was invited to a late night meeting where the president, the law minister, the Attorney General and the Prime Minister Hasina repeatedly pressed him to rule “in favour of the government”.
“The prime minister appeared to me blind for retaining power and her only object was how to control the Supreme Court for coming to power in the next election,” Sinha states in his book. “Her approach was unethical and unconstitutional.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, the former chief justice said that, if the law was passed it would have meant that “judges would be scared that they would be removed” if they were to give rulings against the government or politicians.
On the following day justice Sinha “dismissed” the government’s appeal “unanimously”.
The written copy of the judgment published one month later at the beginning of August 2017 triggered vociferous criticism from the government and its supporters.
Quamrul Islam, the food minister, demanded that the chief justice “step down within a month”, otherwise “lawyers would launch a vigorous movement next month to remove him”.
Islam accused Sinha of “siding with the anti-liberation forces”, referring to those who fought against Bangladesh during the independence war.
Government ministers and supporters also took exception to a comment in the judgment which stated that “No nation – no country is made of or by one person”, claiming that it was a negative reference to Sheikh Mujib, the father of the prime minister and the country’s independence leader, known by many as “the father of the nation”.
The prime minister said in parliament that “the chief justice has raised questions about the role of the father of the nation and the country’s independence”.
According to Sinha’s book, a DGFI officer first contacted him in Japan last September telling him he “should not return to the country and I must go to Australia or Canada for the time being until they decided about my next course of action.”
Sinha refused and returned to Bangladesh.
On October 1, a senior judge told Sinha that the country’s president had met up with him and other judges and “disclosed to them some [corruption] allegations against me, which were serious, and the president directed them not to sit with me in court”.
Justice Sinha denied that there was any substance to the allegations. “What are the allegations? So long as I delivered judgments that went in the government’s favour I was a good person. It is only later after I gave the judgment against the government, that they discover I am corrupt,” he told Al Jazeera.
According to Sinha, the head of DGFI, Major General Mohammad Saiful Abedin met him the next day in his court chambers, and said that the judgement had made the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party happy.
“The BNP was so happy that they distributed sweets among themselves. They exchanged text messages that they were coming to power soon,” he wrote in the book. He told the chief justice that he should go on holiday for four months.
Khaleda Zia, the BNP leader, remains in jail after she was convicted in a corruption case in February. Opposition leaders say the opposition leader is a victim of political vendetta ahead of the parliamentary elections slated to be held the end of this year.
When justice Sinha returned to his house that day, the former chief justice says he found security had been beefed up around his house.
He told Al Jazeera, “I was kept under house arrest for 15 days. I was not allowed to speak to anyone. My officials were transferred, and everything was done under the direction of the DGFI.”
The end game
In mid-October, Sinha decided he had no option but to leave the country. He states in his book that in the early hours of November 10, 2017, while staying in Australia and about to travel to Canada, a DGFI officer, Colonel Md Nazimuddoulah came to his house and told him that the businessman Aniruddha Roy had been freed.
“He then told me that he was kept at an undisclosed location and if I resigned it could lead to Aniruddha’s release,” Sinha writes.
He says that he told the officer that he would not resign until he had spoken to his wife and was sure that Roy had been taken home.”
After a few minutes, they gave the phone to his wife. She was also wailing and making entreaties to me to tender my resignation in exchange for the life of her husband.” Sinha then spoke to Roy who said: “Sir, I am on the stairs of my house.”
The former chief justice says he then signed the resignation letter.
The present government is the biggest beneficiary of my “impartial pronouncements”, Sinha concludes in his book.
But he goes onto say that he was however “rewarded by being called a corrupt chief justice… and then they used the media to assassinate my character”.
“… I have been humiliated at the hands of DGFI who treated me as less than an ordinary citizen only because I did not allow the Supreme Court to become subservient to the government.”