By B.Z. Khasru
If the stars were aligned, former Chief Justice S.K. Sinha could have been Bangladesh’s first minority president. Instead, he might soon find himself mired in a tug of extradition fight between Bangladesh and Canada, where he has just sought political asylum.
Sinha, who crossed over to Canada on July 4 from the United States, was charged mid-July by Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission with bribery and money laundering. Two of his co-defendants each allegedly deposited $250,000 into his bank account as part of a kickback deal, involving a shady purchase of an apartment building in the suburbs of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.
In addition, according to media reports, Sinha improperly influenced a public agency to acquire government land at a nominal price to build the structure. Meanwhile, Sinha’s brother, Ananta Kumar, is being investigated on a suspicion of money laundering related to buying a house in the United States for $280,000.
Soon after the case was filed, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abdul Momen raised the possibility of seeking the former jurist’s extradition from Canada. The chorus highlighting Sinha’s alleged misdeeds got even louder last week when a cabinet member accused the justice of working against Bangladesh’s interest.
The howls raise an intriguing question: Is Sinha evading justice or facing persecution? Bengali officials him see as a renegade jurist who encroached into the forbidden world of politics and indulged in corruption, but Sinha portrays himself as a crusader who sought to protect the judiciary from excesses by opportunist politicians.
Sinha denies the graft charge, but would not defend himself in court. He insists has not committed any crime, and accuses Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of misusing the law. Hasina, he asserts, wanted him to resign after he had ignored her personal request in July 2017 to uphold the law. But he was determined not to let her use the courts “as instruments to serve the government’s purpose.”
Sinha, 68, was appointed chief justice in January 2015, becoming the first Hindu to hold Bangladesh’s top judicial position. He left Bangladesh in October 2017 under mysterious circumstances. Before leaving Dhaka, he announced he was going on “leave” to visit his daughter in Australia. Later he sought political asylum in America. His case remains pending, but he decided to hop to Canada, perhaps because he anticipated a negative outcome in the United States.
Memoir haunts chief justice
While in the United States, he published a memoir in which he claimed Bangladesh’s military intelligence forced him out of his homeland. He alleged that the all-powerful spy agency acted under a direct order from Hasina to banish him into exile.
The conflict that led to 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 bill had given parliament the power to sack judges, taking the responsibility away from the judiciary.
In his memoir, “A Broken Dream,” Sinha wrote that one of three High Court judges who ruled on the law’s constitutionality confided to him that a military intelligence officer had “met him in his chamber and pressured him to deliver the judgment in favor of the government.” However, a majority of the judges decreed the law illegal and the government appealed to the Supreme Court, presided over by Sinha.
On October 1, 2017, the day before the Supreme Court was to announce its ruling, Sinha was invited to a late night meeting where the president, the law minister, the Attorney General and the prime minister repeatedly pressed him to rule “in favor 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 wrote in his book. “Her approach was unethical and unconstitutional.”
Sinha plotted civilian coup?
Rumors had been rampant in Dhaka that Sinha intended to declare the parliament illegal and thus dismiss Hasina’s government. In fact, Sinha had once warned the prime minister to behave, noting the dismissal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Hasina blasted Sinha for his statement and moved preemptively to ensure his quick removal. She had other reasons as well to go after Sinha.
A month before his removal, the justice promised a gathering of Bengali expatriates in Tokyo that he would “restore democracy” in Bangladesh. He implied the prime minister was autocratic, an accusation heard all too often at home and abroad.
Sinha expected his Operation Restore Democracy to begin with a writ petition filed by more than 150 lawyers urging him to declare the parliament illegal and demanding that it be scrapped. Several serving and retired military officers were to back him up from behind the scenes. In exchange for his supportive role, Sinha was promised the presidency. This information, presumably collected by India’s intelligence and leaked to journalists, appeared in news outlets in India.
So strong was Sinha’s desire to oust Hasina that during a trip to New Delhi two years earlier he had urged India’s prime minister to dump her. He painted Hasina as an autocratic ruler, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi brushed him off.
Sinha drew the attention of Bangladesh’s intelligence community following that visit because he had met Modi alone in his official residence, no Bangladeshi diplomat was present. Bengali diplomats in New Delhi and intelligence officials at home were grumpy about it. But Hasina let it die down in an attempt to diffuse any possible controversy involving the nation’s first minority chief justice, whom she picked to placate India and woo minority voters in Bangladesh, even though he was mediocre at best as a jurist.
Graft case tip of iceberg
The corruption case against Sinha is just the tip of the iceberg. He may find himself engulfed in a host of other allegations, ranging from professional misconduct to conspiracy against the government.
After being sworn in as chief justice in 2015, Sinha ran into difficulty with a colleague, Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik, who often defied his authority. Sinha sought help from former Foreign Minister Dr. Kamal Hossain to tame Manik. Because Hossain practiced law in Sinha’s court, this step raised eyebrows about the chief justice’s judicial conduct. Sinha has also been accused of improperly meeting with families of war crimes convicts, Mir Quasem Ali and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury.
Then during his visit to India in October 2015, he told a seminar at the Gujarat National Law University that “in Bangladesh, terrorism has become a serious threat to our national security. It has become a threat to life, economy and political as well as religious pluralism in Bangladesh.” By saying so, he directly contradicted Hasina. She insists Bangladesh is no safe haven for Islamic terrorism. She fears that her admission may be used by her adversaries, especially the United States, to bring about a regime change in the name of fighting terrorism.
The mayhem in several Muslim nations in the Middle East stoked fear in her mind. Not only Hasina, but also her predecessor, Khaleda Zia, consistently denied the presence of terrorists in Bangladesh. However, both India and America see the Muslim-majority nation of 165 million Bengalis as a potential hotbed of Islamic militants.
The fact that the prime minister waited two years to come after Sinha reflects her characteristic modus operandi. Hasina is not known for making rash decisions; her steps are highly calculated and she waits for the right moment to make her moves.
Hasina’s recent decision involving a minority community member, who inaccurately told President Donald Trump last month that 37 million Hindus had disappeared from Bangladesh, indicates how the prime minister works.
When almost the entire country and a number of her cabinet colleagues fumed over Priya Saha’s allegation, which they implied she made to win political asylum in America, Hasina dismissed the possibility of retribution against her for tarnishing the nation’s image for personal gains. Rather, she assured Saha police protection when she returned home from the United States.
Hasina feared that by putting the minority social activist on trial, she would encourage Islamic radicals to browbeat Hindus and give her opponents a weapon to create chaos in the country. She also figured that any judicial action against Saha, who runs a charitable outfit serving the minorities, might spark backlash from India, the prime minister’s staunch ally. While Hasina may be lenient to Saha, at least for now, she is unlikely to be so kind to Sinha. As one late parliamentarian once put it, you may escape from a tiger’s claws, but you will not escape from Hasina’s.
B.Z. Khasru’s new book, “One Eleven, Minus Two: Prime Minister Hasina’s War on Yunus and America” will be published soon. He previously authored: “Bangladesh Liberation War: How India, U.S, China and the USSR Shaped the Outcome,” and “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link.”