Bangladesh’s former chief justice Surendra Kumar Sinha has saught asylum in Canada, claiming he was threatened for refusing to support political interference that would have given parliament greater power to axe dissenting judges.
Sinha, 68, has been in exile — most recently in the United States — since November 2017, three months after he rejected what he alleges was a request from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to rule in favour of her government’s constitutional amendment, reports The Star.
Sinha, the first Hindu to hold the court’s top job in the Muslim majority country, crossed into Canada at Fort Erie on July 4 and filed a refugee claim.
“I was being targeted because I was an activist judge. I delivered judgments that provoked bureaucrats, the establishment, politicians and even terrorists,” Sinha told the Star in an interview this week. “I am the enemy of the country, the persona non grata.”
Earlier this month, Bangladeshi media reported that the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission had charged the ex-chief justice and 10 others, including a former bank executive, with graft, money laundering and abuse of power. The commission did not respond to the Star’s inquiry about the charges, which Sinha vehemently denies.
Last year, Amnesty International raised concerns over the growing interference by the Bangladesh government in the judiciary, citing Sinha’s departure, and noting that human rights defenders were often harassed and intimidated, and “enforced disappearances persisted.”
Bangladesh’s high commissioner to Canada denies Sinha’s accusations.
“All I can tell you is since he left Bangladesh, he has been making these inaccurate statements about the government,” Mizanur Rahman told the Star in a phone interview from Ottawa.
“He is absolutely under no threat to return to the country. He is making these statements just to strengthen his refugee claim.”
Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, started as a secular multiparty democracy before it fell under a one-party rule.
After an uprising, parliamentary rule was restored in 1991 and the country has since been governed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and later the Bangladesh Awami League, which has been in power since 2009 under Hasina’s leadership. Hasina won her third consecutive term in office in December.
In his asylum claim, Sinha said he was invited to a meeting on July 2, 2017, when the prime minister allegedly asked him to rule in favour of constitutional changes that he said would make it easier for the government in power to fire judges.
“I reminded (Hasina) that our democracy is walking in infancy and that there is no rule of law in the country,” said Sinha, who was first appointed judge of the High Court Division in 1999 and of the Supreme Court’s appellate division a decade later. He became Chief Justice of Bangladesh in January 2015.
“Under such position, the Supreme Court is taken as the conscience keeper of the nation,” Sinha said. “It couldn’t be allowed to work as a stooge of the government. I was under immense pressure to do the biddings of the government but I stood my ground.”
Following the July 2017 meeting with the prime minister, Sinha said he was harassed by Bangladeshi intelligence agents, who allegedly forced him to take sick leave from his judicial post and put him under house arrest. He claimed he was also barred from having visitors while both he and his wife were under constant surveillance.
That fall, he said he agreed to leave the country “on holiday” with the help of intelligence officials, who fast-tracked his visa application to Australia, where one of his two daughters lived.
While on a stop in Singapore, on his way back to Bangladesh, he said a Bangladeshi intelligence agent threatened him, telling him not to return home and pressuring him to resign his post.
Sinha then flew to Canada to visit his other daughter who was studying in Manitoba, before heading to the United States in January 2018 and settling with his brother in New Jersey.
He made an asylum claim in the US and while waiting for a decision, he published an autobiography, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy, detailing allegations of government agencies intimidating judges to make decisions in favour of the government.
The American asylum claim is still in process and his wife has also made a claim in Canada.
Sinha said he hadn’t planned to seek protection in Canada until last September, when he began to fear for his life after Bangladeshi media published photos of his brother’s New Jersey home.
The renewed interest in him came after Prime Minister Hasina was questioned about accusations made in the former chief justice’s book during her visit to the UN General Assembly in New York.
Sinha said he made up his mind to come to Toronto recently when his wife fell very ill and wanted to be with their daughter in Canada.