Judiciary under pressure

The judiciary in Bangladesh is under such pressure that it is difficult to believe that the five-year sentence given to former prime minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia is genuine. The judges are on the run because of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's reported annoyance with them. One judge has gone abroad but may not return because he is said to be in the bad books of the prime minister. Understandably, the judge fears some action against him if he returns to Dhaka. In fact, almost the entire judiciary is trying to rescue itself from the situation.

I am not defending Begum Khaleda Zia. But Sheikh Hasina's hand is clearly felt behind the verdict that it cannot be accepted at face value. Justice Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman of the Special Court, while convicting the former prime minister, said she was given a short jail term because of her "health and social status."

This means, Khaleda cannot contest the upcoming general election in December. The charges against her are of embezzling funds to the tune of 21 million takas (about Rs 1.6 crore) received from foreign donors and meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust run by the family.

In fact, along with Khaleda, five other people, including her son Tarique Rahman, were sentenced to 10 years in jail. The prosecution argued that the Zia Orphanage Trust and the Zia Charitable Trust, established in the name of her late husband and former president Zia ur Rahman, existed only on paper. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief and three aides have also been accused of embezzling 31.5 million takas (about Rs 2.5 crore) from the Zia Charitable Trust.

Following the verdict, Khaleda had claimed at a press conference that she was
implicated in a false case and accused the ruling government of unleashing terror. "I believe the court will acquit me of all charges," she said. "It is a false case and a tool to harass me and my family."

Khaleda further said that this was an attempt to use the court to sideline her from politics and elections and to isolate her from the people. "I am ready to face all outcomes. I am not afraid of jail or punishment. I am not going to bow down my head," said the former prime minister. But legal experts say that the verdict could jeopardise her career as she cannot contest polls, unless she manages to obtain a different direction from the Supreme Court.

A day after receiving a copy of the trial court's verdict, her counsels filed an appeal in the high court challenging the verdict. The 1,223-page dossier, which mentions Abdur Rezak Khan as the filing lawyer, cited 25 grounds for Khaleda's acquittal, alleging that the verdict was politically motivated to debar her from contesting elections.

"As soon as the court schedules the hearing, we will file a bail petition," Sagir Hossain, one of her defence counsels told the media. Court officials said a two-judge bench is expected to hear the appeal prayer later this week. The corruption case is one of dozens pending against Khaleda, who has been a rival of Prime Minister Hasina for decades. The charges against her had already led to her boycotting polls in 2014, which triggered widespread protests at the time.

Khaleda, however, appears to be seeking to contest the polls this year. Bangladesh National Party secretary-general Mirza Alamgir said during a protest rally that the party would not take part in polls without her. He said: "No national elections will be held without BNP chairperson Khaleda." However, Hasina contended that her government could do nothing if the BNP decides to boycott the polls. She said elections will be held as per schedule in December whether or not BNP takes part.

In response to media criticism, Sheikh Hasina defended her government, saying that the case against Khaleda was filed in 2008 by the military-backed interim government led by Khaleda's confidants while the independent Anti-Corruption Commission carried out its investigation. "What can we do if they want to abstain from elections...the court has awarded her the imprisonment, we did not, and we can't withdraw it either."  

Khaleda, who has served as prime minister thrice since 1991, faces 30 more charges, ranging from corruption to sedition. But the BNP was quick to react soon after she was convicted as it installed her son Rahman as the acting party chief. This was, understandably, derided by the government. Hasina even commented by saying that it reflected BNP's "moral poverty."

Safeguarding autonomy

It's praiseworthy that the judiciary in the 'Third World' has stayed more or less independent. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to step down because the Supreme Court held him guilty. It said the ousted prime minister tried to fool the court and people, both inside and outside of parliament, and never came up before the court with the whole truth. Nawaz Sharif has accepted the verdict with the remark that he would go back to the people.

Similar is the case of Bihar's Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, who has been sentenced in the fodder scam by the Ranchi High Court. There are several such examples where politicians had to step down. There are also ample examples of politicians bouncing back and challenging the verdict so that they stay relevant with the public.

The system needs to be overhauled so as to disqualify corrupt politicians for life. The Supreme Court of India has hinted at this by saying that "criminal politicians" should not serve in the government. But the apex court has left it to the executive to make necessary changes in the system. This has not worked so far. Why does the Supreme Court expect that it would in the future?

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