By Roni Toldanes
Former Bangladeshi Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha said Friday he had requested political asylum in Canada, as officials in Dhaka vowed to pursue corruption charges against him and rejected his claims that he was forced to go into exile.
Sinha, 68, left Bangladesh in October 2017, alleging he was pressured to resign after rebuffing requests from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and other officials to change a key court ruling that overturned a constitutional amendment giving parliament power to impeach judges.
“Yes,” Sinha told BenarNews in a phone interview, confirming that he had filed for asylum. “We have decided, whatever would be our fate.”
On July 4, as Americans celebrated their Independence Day, Sinha drove through Fort Erie in Ontario, Canada, a six-hour drive from his brother’s home in New Jersey, where he and his wife were temporarily living. He crossed the border with his wife, he said, then filed a refugee claim.
Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) charged Sinha two weeks ago, accusing him and 11 others of money laundering and embezzling funds.
The lawsuit marked the first time in the nation’s history that an incumbent or former chief justice had been formally accused of a criminal offense.
Reacting a day after the charges were announced in Dhaka, Sinha told BenarNews in a phone interview that he would not hire an attorney to defend himself because “the allegations did not disclose any offense” against him.
On Friday, Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, ACC’s public relations officer, said that the commission would pursue its case against the former chief justice, despite his absence in Bangladesh.
“There will be an investigation into the allegations. So, there is no scope that the case would stop,” Bhattacharya told BenarNews. “The case would go on in accordance with the law, no matter whether he [Sinha] defends or not.”
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam described as “absolutely wrong” Sinha’s claims that he was pressured to leave Bangladesh.
Before Sinha left the country, several judges at the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court had approached the then-chief justice and explained the charges against him, Alam told BenarNews in Dhaka.
“They gave him a deadline to explain to them and refute the allegations. They said, otherwise, they would not work with him,” Alam said.
But Sinha failed to refute the allegations, Alam said, and the other judges then met Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid, informing him of their decision not to work with Sinha.
Sinha on Friday gave a different version, saying Hamid himself pressured the judges.
The ACC lawsuit accused Sinha of conspiring with six officials of Farmers Bank, which has been renamed Padma Bank, and four bank clients to divert 40 million taka (U.S. $475,000) into the former chief justice’s personal bank account by using counterfeit credit documents.
Sinha has vehemently denied the corruption allegations.
“If I had [been involved in corruption], what prevented the government from taking legal action for my removal under the constitutional provision, rather than forcefully exiling me from office?” he told BenarNews on Friday.
The Toronto Star on Thursday quoted Sinha as claiming in his asylum application that he was invited to a meeting on July 2, 2017, when Hasina allegedly asked him to rule in favor of constitutional changes that he said would have turned the court into “a stooge of the government.”
After that meeting with the prime minister, Sinha said he was harassed by Bangladeshi intelligence agents, who positioned guards outside his home when he was placed under house arrest.
“I was under immense pressure to do the bidding of the government but I stood my ground,” said Sinha, who became chief justice in January 2015, the first Hindu to hold the court’s highest position in the Muslim majority country.
The daily paper quoted Mizanur Rahman, Bangladesh’s high commissioner to Canada, as saying that Sinha had been making “inaccurate statements” about Hasina’s government.
“He is absolutely under no threat to return to the country,” Rahman told the Star in a phone interview. “He is making these statements just to strengthen his refugee claim.”
London-based Amnesty International last year expressed concerns over what it called “growing interference by the government in the judiciary,” citing Sinha’s controversial departure and the circumstances behind his resignation while abroad, which it said “indicated executive interference.”
Early this month, a Dhaka court set Aug. 28 for submission of probe reports on the embezzlement and money-laundering charges against Sinha and his co-defendants.