A debate is raging in Bangladesh over the constitutionality of rulings issued by retired judges, with the opposition arguing that the country’s last general election was the illegal product of one such opinion.
Marking one year in office on Jan. 17, Chief Justice S.K. Sinha wrote that judges should complete full verdicts in a “reasonable time.”
“Some judges make exceptional delays and continue writing judgments after retirement, a practice which is against the law and unconstitutional,” he wrote in a message posted to the Bangladeshi Supreme Court’s website.
Picking up on the word “unconstitutional,” the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) accused the Awami League government of retaining power illegally through an opinion written by Sinha’s predecessor, A.B.M. Khairul Haque, after his retirement.
BNP honed in on Haque’s ruling that deemed a neutral caretaker government during elections as unnecessary. That ruling led to the Awami League’s (AL) victory in the last general election, held on Jan. 5, 2014.
The AL, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was re-elected to a second term after the BNP boycotted the election over Awami’s decision not to hand the reins of government to a caretaker administration during the run-up to immediate aftermath of the vote.
“The chief justice’s comment supports our position that the AL government is illegitimate. His comment has shaken the government. We welcome his statement,” Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the BNP’s highest policy-making standing committee, told BenarNews.
“The judgment is unconstitutional; so the dropping of the caretaker government is illegal. And the Jan. 5 elections that brought Awami League to power is also illegal,” Rahman said.
At a press conference on Thursday, BNP Joint Secretary-General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi demanded that Haque be arrested for "violating" the constitution, since the justice had become an ordinary citizen after retirement.
Rizvi said the government had filed a sedition case against BNP chairwoman Khaleda Zia to divert public attention from the chief justice’s comment. On Monday, a court in Dhaka ordered the former three-time prime minister to appear for a hearing into the charge on March 3.
The charge stems from a public comment made by Zia last month in which she allegedly questioned the official number on people killed in Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Critics have accused the government of Hasina of using the sedition accusation as a way to sideline Zia. The two Begums, as the pair of most famous women in Bangladesh are known, are longtime and bitter foes.
Law minister challenges court
Meanwhile, Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Huq lashed out at the chief justice for his statement.
“I challenge, can Sinha show any part of the constitution that says writing verdicts after retirement is illegal? He could have said some of the judges have not been completing judgments before retirement. As there is no constitutional obligation, how can he use a word like unconstitutional?” Huq said at his parliamentary office on Wednesday as he threw a copy of the constitution toward a BenarNews correspondent.
“There is no problem with the post-retirement judgment writing. The practice has been going on for decades; if it was ‘unconstitutional,’ most of the decisions of the state and the government would be illegal. Given the gravity of the word, I speak against the statement,” Huq said.
Sinha’s statement angered AL lawmakers, too.
“His statement is provocative. He has made some comments that have created tension in politics. He should not have made such remarks as head of the judiciary,” Suranjit Sengupta, the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on law ministry, told parliament.
Post-retirement opinion writing was not unconstitutional, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told reporters.
According to Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, many MPs wanted to comment on Sinha’s statement during Wednesday’s session in parliament.
“But I declined to give them floor,” she told BenarNews, adding that any further discussion would put the executive and the judiciary at loggerheads.
On Thursday night, Prime Minister Hasina, Chief Justice Sinha, the law minister and attorney general met with President Abdul Hamid, who appoints the chief justice.
Hamid’s press secretary, Joynal Abedin, confirmed to BenarNews that the meeting took place at the president’s official residence, but declined to reveal what was said behind closed doors.