The common refrain chorused by the AL leaders after the verdict of February 8 was “Nobody is above the law,” and affirming that rule of law would always prevail. We would like to take heart from it, because our experience, not only in recent times but also during the period soon after our independence, bears out what the infamous Beria, the head of Joseph Stalin's secret police, had said: “Show me the man, and I'll show you the crime” (law).
Thus the focus of this piece is not on the case itself or on the various ramifications of that, but the comments of the AL leaders and their implication on the rule of law, particularly on how corruption is being dealt with and will be dealt with in the future.
True, after long years has a well-known person, let alone a very senior politician and major political party leader, been convicted and jailed for corruption. And of course, a few ruling party MPs had to face trial on alleged corruption and murder too. But a ruling party MP who has had his conviction for corruption of six years in jail for defalcating Tk 130 million confirmed continues to don the Bangladesh flag on his car. Another AL MP accused of killing a freedom fighter, and under trial without bail, “languishes” in the hospital cabin of a public hospital from time to time when he gets tired of the prison cell he is in.
Some of the AL leaders say that there is no room for corruption in this country, and that the corrupt should be banned from politics. No one can take issue with that. We believe that evils, particularly committed by those in position of power, not only live after them but should also haunt them during their lifetime. And that is so even when one manages to escape the law.
Can one thus presume that a new era will be ushered in, in the country's governance and in the functioning of the administration, and our democratic institutions would show zero tolerance for all culpable crimes committed, irrespective of their political affiliation? And that henceforth, we will see our parliament esteemed by members who will pass the test of probity, with no blot, proven or alleged, on their character?
The ultimate test of rule of law is when it is applied equitably to all, without fear or favour, without considering one's political colour, belief or power, equally to the rich as well as to the poor. It is a matter that should manifestly exist in the behaviour and acts of the government and its agencies that are entrusted with ensuring the rule of law. It exists when an accused is not considered guilty till proven so. There cannot be rule of law when the security agencies become judge, jury and executioner. When people go missing, allegedly picked up by plainclothesmen, the state must take cognisance of the allegation of the family; otherwise our claim to the strictest regime of rule of law in the country will sound hollow. It seems that the writ of habeas corpus has vanished from the legal book.
For the sake of rule of law one would like to see all the cases of planned robberies of the state-owned banks through loans given to cronies, the MLM companies which conned gullible people of their money, of companies like Destiny and Hallmark, and of the stock exchange scamsters who robbed thousands of people of modest means of their life's savings, and of a former chairman of a public bank who is alleged to have been involved in siphoning off thousands of crores of public money and was not even in the initial charge sheet, be dealt with speedily.
We are sure, given the five-year sentence that Khaleda Zia was handed down for misusing Tk 25 million, those accused of misappropriating thousands of times more that amount will get their due, of course after due process of law. But the “due process” should move “duly”. And we would hope that a huge sum of Tk 4,500 million will not be dismissed as mere “peanuts”.
An example of how the rule of law is applied selectively or not applied at all is the burning down of the historical students' hostel of Sylhet MC College on July 12, 2012. Interestingly, the trial court had to order reinvestigation of the matter thrice, because each time the report was put up to the court, it had rejected the report. The first by the local police, the second by the CID, and third by Police Bureau of Investigation that was submitted only in May 2017, five years after the incident. And those were rejected because none of the reports found involvement of the BCL, whereas evidence showed otherwise. This is a classic case of how the state agencies pander to the ruling party, running the principle of rule of law to the ground, to the detriment of good governance.
It seems that all the corrupt and bad belong to the opposition, whosoever may be in power. It was during the last caretaker government that a number of cases were lodged against members of both the parties. Most of the cases against the AL, which came to power after the election, have been quashed or dismissed by the court, with some exceptions, whereas against the opposition most of them are in the court. One wonders what the case would have been had the election result been different and BNP come to power. The picture, quite likely, would have been reversed.
Our submission to the ruling party, of now and of the future, is to prove that nobody is above the law, and nobody is below it either. Only then can one claim to be governed by the rule of law and not of men.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.