Moment of truth for incumbents
THE refusal by a two-member bench of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court on Monday to hear a case because a minister of the Awami League government had called one of the judges—apparently to influence its outcome—is significant for two obvious reasons. First, the cause and context of the court’s refusal to hear the case, mentioned in its referral that the ‘matter be placed before the chief justice for appropriate order’, provide a documented evidence of the ruling political elite’s hitherto suspected but not proven tendency to bring the government’s weight to bear on the judiciary, either individually or collectively. Second, the moral and ethical high ground that the two judges have taken on the issue—if taken as an example and emulated by their colleagues—could help arrest erosion of public faith in the judiciary. Moreover, the minister’s apparent concern about the case, which, according to a report published in New Age on Tuesday, involves transfer of ownership of five apartments in the capital Dhaka through auction by a bank, tends to suggest that a section of the government seems to have defined its role as promoters and protectors of the interest of the few that belong to the affluent sections of society.
The principled position that the two judges have taken could prove to be transformative for the judiciary in particular and governance in general. First of all, by not only refusing to bow to the minister’s whims and wishes but also making public the latter’s manoeuvring, the two judges have set a sterling example for their colleagues to follow. If the other judges on the Supreme Court react to such unethical overtures, in similar fashion, regardless of the status, political and otherwise, of the initiators, the judiciary will be stronger than it is now and thus command public trust and respect. Moreover, the refusal by the two judges to hear the case and the reason they have cited for the refusal look to have put the incumbents in a bind. The episode has apparently put a big question mark over their self-professed commitment to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. Nothing short of a credible inquiry to identify the overbearing minister and his or her dismissal from the cabinet will save the face for them.
While successive governments have tried to influence the judiciary, to varying degrees and successes, there have been very few instances of judges holding their ground and repel and make public such unlawful overtures. Now that the two judges have done so, it enjoins upon both the executive and the judiciary to take decisive and demonstrative steps to bury the ill once and for all.
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