Bangladesh is facing a constitutional crisis. The chief justice of its Supreme Court, Surendra Kumar Sinha, flew to Australia on Friday following an altercation with the government. He was allegedly forced to go on leave by the ruling Awami League, which claimed that he was unwell. Sinha, however, has rejected this claim. On Wednesday, his wife too left the country.

Sinha’s departure coincided with the government bringing allegations of corruption against him and announcing an investigation – a move widely seen as a witch hunt against the chief justice.

The row between the government and the judiciary has its genesis in a July 3 verdict of a seven-member bench of the Supreme Court, which struck down a constitutional amendment that gave Parliament the power to impeach judges (as is the practice in India). The judgement reportedly restored the powers of a judicial council, comprising the chief justice and the two senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, to remove judges.

Checks and balances

With Parliament dominated by the Awami League – the party that led Bangladesh’s war for independence from Pakistan in 1971 – the Right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party welcomed the Supreme Court judgement, saying it would reduce the power of the government and give the Opposition more space to operate.

The Awami League, however, was not pleased with this check on its powers. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina picked up a statement made by Sinha on August 20 in which he referred to a judgement by the Supreme Court of Pakistan that had unseated its prime minister from office. Criticising the chief justice for comparing Bangladesh to Pakistan – a prickly matter given the history of the 1971 Liberation War – Hasina said, “The people’s court is the biggest court.”

Soon after, the ruling party levelled allegations of corruption against Sinha. On September 30, the president of Bangladesh handed over documents pertaining to 11 allegations of corruption against Sinha to five other judges. These judges, in turn, refused to sit on a bench with Sinha till the charges against him were cleared.

On Friday, the chief justice left for Australia. The Opposition has alleged this was a way for the ruling party to remove Sinha from the post of chief justice. The Awami League, on its part, claimed Sinha was going on leave as he was unwell. But before leaving the country, Sinha said in a written statement, “I am completely well, but I am really embarrassed at the way political quarters, lawyers and specially several honourable ministers and the prime minister personally criticised me with respect to a verdict recently.”

He also raised a red flag on the independence of the judiciary, citing a statement by the law minister that the acting chief justice would bring sweeping changes in the way the Supreme Court was run.

This row represents a sudden souring of relations between the prime minister and the chief justice. Hasina had hand-picked Sinha for the job in 2015, making him the country’s first minority chief justice. Sinha had also played a key role in the War Crimes Tribunal that dealt with acts of violence during the 1971 war, upholding the death sentences of prominent Opposition leaders accused of committing war crimes and collaborating with Pakistan.

Latest crisis

The constitutional crisis is the latest in a long line of events that has pushed Bangladesh towards authoritarianism. The Awami League won a second term in 2014 through an election that was practically a farce. Most of the Opposition had boycotted the polls, suspecting they would be rigged. More than half the seats in Parliament were decided without contest, with Awami League candidates securing victory unopposed.

Once in power, the Awami League used egregious violence against the Opposition. The country has seen a series of enforced disappearances and secret detentions of Opposition leaders. Even the War Crimes Tribunal has been criticised for not following due process – a crucial point because many of the people hanged by it were Opposition leaders. All these developments have squeezed the democratic space in Bangladesh.