Courier Asks: Can the Supreme Court recover its image?

Thursday, October 19th, 2017


It is the surest way to ensure a man’s damnation in Bangladesh today. On August 12, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam, one who had long endured Chief Justice S.K. Sinha’s often chastising pronouncements from the bench, speaking to reporters in his office said: “Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has been undermined through the Supreme Court observation and people of the country have been hurt by the observation.”


There was no elaboration of the argument, no explanation of the particular context. It did tell us though, that the AG was still in the process of reading the full text of the Appellate Division’s verdict scrapping the 16th amendment to the constitution, that had earlier given parliament the power to remove SC judges for misconduct or incapacity. Otherwise, why would he not have flagged it before? The almighty storm prompted by the verdict  had been swirling, nay raging, already for nearly two weeks, since August 1, the day it was released. While one segment of the population could scarcely stand the CJ’s temerity in offering up the reasons that he did for upholding the HC verdict (the immaturity of parliament as well as other institutions ), others failed to comprehend what all the fuss was about, since most of what he had written did not, on the face of it at least, ring untrue.  The prime minister, notably, had maintained a studied silence.


The aim of a court’s verdict is patently to establish the truth about a particular matter. Not to state all truths in our universe. While recognising the reasons behind the Supreme Court’s reluctance to hand over the power to remove judges to a parliament that will forever be questioned on its legitimacy as representatives of the people (153 MPs, enough for a majority, got elected without winning a single vote) as legitimate concerns for democracy in general, we also felt it too adventurous for a court to  take into cognisance such short-term, almost contemporary condition in making its decisions. Thus we supported the government’s position to return this power to the people, which in the absence of referenda and direct democracy, can only mean parliament. How to improve the functioning and make-up of that body, we felt, was a separate or subsequent matter.


The AG’s pronouncement, whether intentionally or not, had a galvanising effect on the cacophony already arising out of all corners, or rather amongst all in the government’s corner, given the emotional response they all share to the Father of the Nation. The law minister soon repeated the claim.  This was now not going away. Food Minister Qamrul Islam, forced to apologise to a bench led by CJ Sinha only last year for holding the court in contempt, threatened a movement of lawyers against Sinha, unless he resigned. Similar threats were issued by Barrister Fazle Noor Taposh, the prime minister’s cousin.


And then came the PM herself, speaking in parliament as it reconvened, and she too flagged resigning, as an option Justice Sinha could avail. “The chief justice might have forgotten the appointment process. He was appointed by the president who is elected by lawmakers. He should have resigned from his post before making any comment on the election process of the women MPs or after delivering the verdict,” she said.


The chief justice though, was not playing ball, or at least not playing according to rules set by others. When the government mulled the option of avoiding an escalation by holding out over the filing of a review petition against the verdict, the only legal step open to the government, till after Sinha’s retirement, he issued a rule fixing a deadline for collecting certified copies of verdicts that would give him a chance to be part of the bench hearing it.


Ultimately, that combativeness to his character, may just have seen to his end.  The circumstances once again smacked of farce, from the law minister almost gleefully revealing the CJ’s battle with cancer (already overcome) and refusing to acknowledge what was all too plain to see by October 2, when a clearly defenestrated CJ filed a bewildering letter of leave with the president, even as the court prepared to return from a routine vacation. By October 14 he was gone, and acting in concert with the acting chief justice, the government’s plans for the Supreme Court and its administration had been put into motion. But even further advanced down the line, might just be the total annihilation of the Supreme Court’s image, in the eyes of the public it once served.

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