Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Judicial independence, media freedom and Sheikh Hasina

This is a story about a recorded conversation that says a lot about judicial independence and media freedom in Bangladesh - or the lack thereof.

Bangladesh's justice system is based upon an important fiction. It is a fiction not  uncommon to many authoritarian governments. This is the idea that the country's courts operate independently from the executive.

Probably, few people in Bangladesh actually believe that fiction. Many are aware of the partisan way in which magistrates and judges are appointed; how the government moves magistrates around from one court to another court, one district to another one, as and when they require; or indeed the powers of persuasion and intimidation held by the executive which they use to ensure that magistrates and judges make the "right" decision. Of course, if they have already appointed highly partisan judges, then little persuasion and intimidation will be necessary.

This is not to say that every decision goes the Bangladesh government's way. In a non-totalitarian country, there remains some levels of autonomy and independence, and certain conduct and decisions is outside the government's control.*

Nonetheless, this fiction of judicial independence is constantly claimed by government ministers and of course by the courts themselves. It is an important fiction; at some level the judicial system cannot function unless people have some kind of belief in the judiciary's independence.

In the past, the media - or more accurately the small parts of the media which remained independent  - did sometimes prick holes in this judicial fiction. However, it is rare - as doing so risked prosecution for contempt of court. Now, with even less media freedom in Bangladesh, it is a brave or reckless editor that would publish such a story.

It is in any case difficult for journalists at the best of time to get solid evidence that a particular judicial decision was made as a result of executive interference.

Occasionally, however, comments from the mouths of ministers themselves give the game away. And one such moment came a few days ago in a telephone conversation between the prime minister Sheikh Hasina and her UK Awami League party leaders in which she refers to the question of whether  Khaleda Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, currently in jail following conviction for corruption, will be allowed out of jail or not. The government of course have said that it is upto the courts - and the courts are not giving her bail pending appeal.

Yet, a recording of a conversation between Sheikh Hasina and Awami League activists suggest that it is not the courts that will determine what happens to the opposition leader. 

The prime minister arrived in London last Wednesday, on 1 May. As is customary, Awami League leaders and activists came to the airport hoping to meet her. Amongst those present were Sultan Shariff, UK Awami League president and Syed Faruq, the UK Awami League secretary.

The video shows Syed Faruq holding a mobile phone, with the speaker phone on, and the voice of Sheikh Hasina can be heard. It appears that Hasina was using a mobile phone belonging to Bangladesh's High Commissioner to the UK, as the name of Sayeda Muna Tasneem is shown on Faruq's mobile phone screen.

The person who filmed the conversation was Md Akkadus, an Awami League activist using Facebook live. The video is no longer posted on his Facebook time line.

Sheikh Hasina's voice can be heard loud and clear. At first she says this:
I will talk with you later after the surgery in my eyes. Please don’t crowd the hotel. Because you make such a crowd, no hotel wants to give us booking now. I will talk to you later at my convenience.
She then goes onto to talk about Tareque Zia, the son of the opposition leader Khaleda Zia
And, let the BNP know that if Tarique shows his arrogance with me, his mother (Khaleda Zia) will never be able to come out of jail in her lifetime. He must understand that nothing can be realized from Sheikh Hasina by force. Their (BNP) MPs have joined parliament today. They had some demands… treatment and others (of Khaleda Zia). We are ready to consider [that demand]. Many have met me in this regard, but as I come here now, if Tarique shows his arrogance over it, then I will tell them: ‘Sorry, your leader (Tarique) has misbehaved with me, has done such malicious act, I will not…" (emphasis added)**

Sultan Shariff, the UK Awami League president told this blog that "It was a simple conversation. She wanted to say thank-you for coming as she had not come to the UK for a long time."

However, it is pretty blatant that this was not a "simple" conversation - and that it suggests that the decision about Khaleda Zia's bail will be dependent on Sheikh Hasina and not on any independent judicial decision.

Equally noteworthy is that not a single media outlet in Bangladesh (as far as this blog can make out) actually reported on this conversation although this video was widely distributed. This is a reflection of the highly restricted media operating in Bangladesh these days - as noone would dare report on this conversation.


In addition, there are many decisions before the courts that the government does not care that that much about anyway. And, of course, there are some individuals/organisations outside the government which can themselves corrupt the system so that the courts rule their, rather than the government's, way.

** This translation was revised on Thursday 9 May.