<%-- Page Title--%> Politics <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 156 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 28, 2004

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Judges Grow Older and the Photo-finish

Ahmede Hussain

The 14th Constitution Amendment Bill was passed on May 17 with much funfair by the parliament by 226-1 division vote. But some of the changes to the Constitution have given rise to growing scepticism.

The amendment to the Constitution came at a moment when the BNP-led Four-party Alliance government was just half way through its five-year term; when the alliance's failure to reign in rising inflation and corruption has never been so obvious.

Under the second constitution amendment in eight years, 45 reserved seats will be filled in for the remaining tenure of the current eighth parliament on a proportional basis. "The provision on 45 reserved seats," according to the amendment, "will remain effective for 10 years from the sitting date of the ninth parliament." Another major provision under the change was the mandatory display of the portraits of the president and the prime minister. The new law also raises the retirement age of the Supreme Court judges to 67 from 65.

The amendment has drawn widespread criticism from the main opposition. Terming it illegal and contrary to the basic spirit of the Constitution, Awami League president Sheikh Hasina told a daily, "It was not necessary at all. I don't know whether there is any country in the world that has a law or constitutional provision for displaying portraits of the president and the prime minister." I was also the prime minister. But I did not ask to hang my portrait; I did not want it, she points out. The amendment, in fact, when first tabled, did not seek to display the portraits of the president and prime minister in the government offices. Many believe, the law was enacted to prevent the display of Sheikh Mujib's portrait from government offices.

The bill that was passed in the afternoon of May 17 had every element of an Elizabethan comedy. And it was not all-good at the Jatiya Party (JP-Ershad) camp. Since its introduction to the parliament, JP MPs denounced the bill terming it a black law. Some even submitted notice for eliciting public opinion and amendment proposals on the bill, a newspaper report says. But, as reports suggest, the apparently rebellious JP was snubbed when the government threatened to put their leader behind bars in over a dozen cases pending against him.

"According to the party decision, the chairman (HM Ershad) demanded the withdrawal of the bill on May 13. I do not know of any new decision overruling the previous one. The party chairman also told me in the morning that the decision has not been changed," Golam Mohammad Kader, a JP MP, told the Daily Star. "The lawmakers who voted in favour of the bill violated the party's decision on the issue as it decided earlier to oppose the bill and it has not that decision," continued Kader, who with another fellow JP legislator skipped parliament proceedings protesting his party's flip-flopping.

The increase in the retirement age of the judges has fallen in line of criticism too. Deputy Leader of the Opposition Abdul Hamid alleged that the new law was being enacted with a partisan intention. "They want to put a man of their choice as the head of the caretaker government. It is a design by the BNP-Jamaat alliance to manipulate the next general election," Hamid told the journalists. In fact, the new amendment means, the incumbent Chief Justice KM Hasan will be the chief of the caretaker government when the government finishes its term in 2006. What makes people more suspicious is the fact that Hasan used to be a member of the BNP before his appointment as a high court judge.

Observers fear the retirement age was also raised to maintain the status quo in the Sheikh Mujib murder case. Because as all of the sitting judges have felt embarrassed, it will become practically impossible to try Mujib's killers before 2007. It is quite turbid to the general people as to why the BNP has been trying to save the self-confessed killers of Bangabandhu. "The government has passed the bill considering the ruling parties' interest, not the interest of the common people," Hasanul Haque Inu, Jatya Shamajtantrik Dal leader, says.



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