Contempt law aims to protect top officials |
Julfikar Ali Manik
Eminent jurists yesterday strongly denounced the draft contempt of court law saying the government is framing this law apparently to protect certain top bureaucrats facing contempt charges.
"Questions arose in my mind whether this law is being framed on suggestions of the top bureaucrats now facing contempt charges, and in their interest," said Dr Kamal Hossain. "This law is supposed to protect the judiciary. But it seems the law is being framed to protect the bureaucrats."
Rokanuddin Mahmud, vice chairman of Bangladesh Bar Council, said, "The government has approved this law when some top bureaucrats are facing contempt charges for hindering separation of the judiciary."
Law Commission Chairman and former chief justice Mostafa Kamal declined to make any comment, saying he is yet to see the draft law.
The cabinet-approved contempt of court law provides for a six-month imprisonment or a fine of Tk 5,000 or both as the maximum penalty for contempt of court. Under the existing law of 1926, the highest penalty for this is six months in prison or a fine of Tk 2,000 or both.
Besides framing a new contempt of court law, the government is also amending the Public Servants (Dismissal on Conviction) Ordinance 1985. Under this act, a civil servant loses job if he is fined Tk 10,000. Previously this act dictated that a civil servant would lose his job if he is fined more than Tk 1,000 and jailed for six months. This amended act now cleared by the cabinet is awaiting approval of the parliament.
The proposed amended act essentially saves a civil servant from losing his job for contempt of court, which the original act does not.
"We would like to raise questions why the government has taken the initiative to frame a new law on a serious matter like contempt of court when its tenure of office is about to end," said Dr Kamal while talking to The Daily Star at the Supreme Court.
"I was not shown the draft bill but I gathered the essence of this law from newspaper reports. This law mainly aims at reconfiguring penalties for the civil servants. Whose interest is being served by it?"
The renowned jurist observed, "The judiciary is one of the basic pillars of the state and the constitution. To protect it, the issue of contempt of court is there. There are many things to consider before intervening in such a pillar of the state. Before passing this bill in parliament, the government should take opinions from the public, experts, seven former chief justices who are still alive, lawyers of different levels and those who understand this matter. It would be a great mistake not to do this.
Rokanuddin also said he was not shown the draft law although he had asked the law minister to give him a copy. His impression on the proposed law is based on press reports.
"I think there is an ill motive behind the framing of this law, apparently devised to save civil servants from the pitfalls of contempt of court. This is not proper. The law should have been framed in such a way that a civil servant would not dare to go for contempt of court."
He also said the draft is against public interest. If enacted, it will hamper protection of judges. The judges usually issue orders on the civil servants and the law enables them to make sure that the officials obey them. Now, this authority to enforce an order has been compromised.
If payment of Tk 5,000 as fine for contempt of court does not lead to termination of an official's job he can go on violating the orders without serious consequences, Rokanuddin noted.
But Law Minister Moudud Ahmed said, "The existing law relating to contempt of court does not dictate termination of a civil servant's job, the proposed law also does not have that provision."
The 1985 act on civil servants had provisions for job termination and this is being amended, he added.
"Rather, we have enhanced the penalty for contempt of court to Tk 5,000," the minister said, claiming that the draft law was framed to uphold the image of the judiciary.
"There was no complete law on contempt of court in the past. Now, we have defined what would be considered as contempt of court. The press and the journalists will now know their limits regarding the judiciary and the judiciary will also know its boundary," he pointed out.
Sources said a full-fledged contempt of court act was submitted by the Law Commission to the law ministry but the commission is in the dark whether its recommendations are accepted or not.
"Until we have a copy of the draft law, we cannot say if our recommendations are accepted," said a commission source seeking anonymity.
Justice Kamal said, "I have not seen the draft. So, I can't make any comment."
Sources said in framing the draft law, the government did not discuss definitions of contempt, penalties and other aspects of the law with any stakeholders. It was simply framed by bureaucrats.
Inspector General of Police Shahudul Haque was fined Tk 2,000 or face a jail term of one month for contempt of court in 2004.
Besides, nine bureaucrats are facing a contempt charge in the Supreme Court for distorting the court's 12-point directive on the separation of the judiciary from the executive.
In another contempt of court case, top four bureaucrats of the government -- principal secretary to the prime minister, finance secretary, law secretary and establishment secretary -- stand accused for non-compliance with the 12-point directive.