For years, Surendra Kumar Sinha was a member of the ruling order in Bangladesh, seen by many as a key ally of Sheikh Hasina and her regime. That was until he was put under house arrest and then forced into exile in late 2017. One year on, Sinha, former chief justice of Bangladesh, is speaking out against the “autocratic government” in Dhaka that is backed by New Delhi.
In his newly published memoir, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy, Justice Sinha appears as the whistleblower many Bangladeshis have been waiting for. The chief justice once seen as a loyal insider is now revealing jaw-dropping details about a ruthless regime and the techniques of oppression and manipulation it deploys.
He is unrelenting in his criticism of the regime, and part of the criticism is directed at its main international patron: India.
“People cannot be ruled with the help of security forces consistently violating the civil rights of the citizens. No autocratic government can rule the country for an indefinite period,” Justice Sinha writes in his self-published memoir, which is already a bestseller on Amazon Kindle. “Unless democracy and rule of law are established, the sentiments of the people will keep rising against the tyrannical government and it will go against India as well because India is seen to be propping up an autocratic government for its own interest.”
As Justice Sinha tells me during a telephone interview, he took his criticism to the highest level of the Indian government when he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a trip to India in October 2015. “Actually, I questioned the prime minister of India when I met him – I questioned him. I said rule of law and democracy are not in existence in Bangladesh, you should not support this fanatic, autocratic government. I also explained to him that unless there is rule of law, I cannot administer justice because there is interference.”
What was Modi’s response?
“He said he is sorry about what is going on – he has limitations.”
“India supported our liberation struggle, [sacrificing] over 25,000 soldiers for the liberation of our country. We are not enemies, rather we are friends,” Justice Sinha wants me to know where exactly he is coming from. “[As a regional superpower], India has some obligations. If there is no rule of law, if there is no democracy in neighbouring countries, it will certainly affect Indian politics too.”
His worst fear? Bangladesh becoming another version of a dysfunctional Pakistan, where the writ of the constitutional state is ceded to rogue security agencies and jihadi groups.
“Why do I mention Pakistan [in the memoir]?” Justice Sinha responds when I ask him to elaborate. “It is known to all that the Pakistani ISI is so powerful that it controls the government – whatever they say is followed. And what is the ultimate result of that? After dusk – and we know this from our friends, [Pakistani] judges and other people we met – about 40% [Pakistani territory] is under the control of terrorist groups. Do we want to invite this environment to Bangladesh? We are heading towards that. We can avoid that if only there is democracy in true sense – if there is rule of law.”
This is where our conversation turns towards the major Islamist groups in Bangladesh and their relationship with Sheikh Hasina and her party Awami League.
“They [Awami League] talk about [Jamaat-e-Islami]. Yes, Jamaat was against the liberation of Bangladesh. But, what about [Hefazat-e-Islam]? They are more fanatical than Jamaat,” says Justice Sinha. “This present government is patronising Hefazat — they are using religion as an instrument of power, they do not believe in democracy, they do not believe in [the national interest] or people’s interest. They only believe in power.”
Over a crackling connection, I want to know who are “they” exactly? Sheikh Hasina and top Awami League leaders, he says. And adds, “How can she patronise them! Sheikh Hasina on one occasion admitted to me that, yes, she is giving money to [Hefazat] to keep them calm. Maulana Shafi [the ameer of Hefazat] once spoke against her in filthy language. [Even then] she bowed her head [before him] and sent him to India for special [medical] treatment.”
Justice Sinha wants me to understand the threat posed by the ultra Islamists of Hefazat. And I listen to him intently because, after all, he is the person who was talking about the rise of ISIS in Bangladesh before most of us knew about it. That was back in October 2015, just two months after the Bangladeshi affiliate of ISIS was founded. As the Indian Express reported on October 6, 2015: “Justice Sinha […] said that [the] jihadist group Islamic State (IS) was creating a base in Bangladesh.”
The government of Bangladesh, on the other hand, still denies the existence of any ISIS affiliate in the country.
“If there is no rule of law then people’s rights are not protected. If this continues, then the fanatics will one day take control,” Justice Sinha now notes the inverse relationship between rule of law and the rise of jihadi groups. “Terrorism and fanaticism is spreading across the country [through mosques and madrasas controlled by Hefazat].”
And Sheikh Hasina is aiding this process?
“Oh yes – this is known to all!”
Of course it is not a secret that Hasina is not doing this on her own. Her romance with the mullahs is chaperoned by her military advisers – Major General (retired) Tarique Ahmed Siddique (security adviser), Major General Miah Zainul Abedin (military secretary) and the brigadier generals heading different bureaus of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI).
This is where we start talking about the DGFI, the Bangladeshi military intelligence agency modelled after the ISI.
The DGFI is a big part of Justice Sinha’s memoir – a quick search inside the e-book returns 63 mentions of the agency.
One of the major chapters indeed details how the chief justice of Bangladesh himself was threatened, blackmailed, put under house arrest and then forcibly sent into exile by the military intelligence agency. This was an elaborate operation overseen by Major General Saiful Abedin, the DGFI chief.
Other sections of the book describe how DGFI officers threaten and blackmail judges and coerce them into giving verdicts that are favourable to the government or the ruling party.
A chief justice put under house arrest by the generals, and judges being coerced by the all-powerful military intelligence agency – I tell Justice Sinha that reading these sections without drawing parallels with Pakistan is impossible.
This is the only time in our conversation he starts struggling with his words, “Yes, my official residence… [I was] totally confined… You see this [was] the helpless condition of the chief justice. If the chief justice of the country is helpless – sitting chief justice – what would be the fate of other judges? [What] a humiliation!”
I hear the breathing on the other side of the phone and decide to swallow a question I wanted to ask: a question about a DGFI colonel who, according to a military source, assaulted the chief justice of Bangladesh at the Supreme Court premises.
Instead, I ask him about enforced disappearances.
In his memoir, Justice Sinha confirms the existence of a classified DGFI programme which involves abducting people and keeping them in secret, illegal detention facilities. As he describes one case in his book: “Aniruddha Roy, the honorary Consul General of Belarus [and] a reputed businessman, was picked up from Dhaka’s Gulshan at 4:30 PM. […] I got confirmation from [DGFI officer] Lt. Col. Nazimuddoula that [Aniruddha Roy] was in their custody. Police also intimated to [Roy’s wife] by tracking his phone that he was kept somewhere in Kachukhet in Dhaka Cantonment area.”
The existence of a secret DGFI detention facility (codenamed ‘Black Hole 2’) in Kachukhet, which is a residential area inside Dhaka Cantonment, was first reported by HRW in 2008. Last November, The Wire cited this information in its report about the abduction and secret detention of a Bangladeshi academic.
“It is them [DGFI] in each and every incidence of [enforced disappearance],” Justice Sinha now tells me when I ask him about Aniruddha Roy and other victims of state-sponsored enforced disappearance.
The DGFI is responsible for most – if not all – of the enforced disappearances in Bangladesh? I ask.
“This is what I believe, because of the fact that there is no check and balance of their activities. There should be check and balance.”
What can be the reason that victims do not say or reveal anything after they are released from DGFI custody?
“[Because] they are coached and compelled to make [false] statements. If they disclose [any real information about their detention] they will be picked up after midnight, killed and their dead body will be thrown away.”
We talk more about how the DGFI has been terrorising every section of the Bangladeshi society, including the diaspora. He has written the memoir with the “assistance, support and help” of friends in the US who asked him not to name them because they are scared, “I asked them [what are they so scared of]. They said ‘we are [US] citizens but [our relatives] are back in Bangladesh – security agencies might pick them up.’”
Then he tells me about exiled Bangladeshi journalists he met in the US, “I met [journalists] from both electronic and print media. They reported something, they published something – and they were subjected to torture. They left the country and [received political asylum] in the United States.”
As the phone connection keeps dropping and I call back, Justice Sinha makes another revelation. He thinks he is under DGFI surveillance in New Jersey, US (where he is now based), “[I was informed that] two DGFI officers were deputed to watch this house. They are watching [who is coming in and going out]. They are monitoring everything [from the top floor of an adjacent building].”
He also thinks the DGFI has installed some equipment to intercept his calls, thus the frequent interruptions in our conversation. I ask him if he has informed the New Jersey State Police because such espionage would clearly be illegal under US law. Before he can answer, the line drops again.
When I call back, Justice Sinha tells me about a meeting he had with the US State Department, “They invited me to have a meeting – a high-level meeting – after the publication of my book. They showed interest and wanted to talk to me. I explained everything.”
We now switch topics and talk about human rights or how the judiciary in Bangladesh is failing to protect citizens from abuses. “I [am so frustrated] when I see people’s rights are not protected,” says Justice Sinha. “Because all the time there is interference. This type of judiciary is a mockery, some sort of mockery is going on.”
We talk about killings in custody and torture, which he says are rampant despite past interventions by the Supreme Court, “The highest court’s verdicts, the highest court’s directions are not respected by the [law enforcement agencies].”
I ask him about “crossfire” or “gunfight” killings (the Bangladeshi version of “encounter” killings).
“These are concocted stories. They just kill the detainee – this is extrajudicial killing. These officers – police or any [other law enforcement agency] – should be tried and punished.”
And then I tell him about my friend Shahidul Alam, the Bangladeshi photojournalist now in prison. I can hear Justice Sinha taking a deep breath, “[His arrest] was so shocking. I cannot explain. This is authoritarian rule – nobody can express his opinion.”
I cite a court official who claimed in a private conversation that the DGFI is putting pressure on a judge not to grant Shahidul Alam bail. This does not surprise the former chief justice of Bangladesh, “This is why I fought against the government for the independence of the judiciary. Now [the courts] are under the executive.”
I reach the final question in my notepad: what does the former chief justice of Bangladesh really think of Sheikh Hasina?
“I am not blaming Sheikh Hasina. [Things are so bad because] she is continuously in power for ten years — she is surrounded by sycophants. I even told her this and she was so annoyed. Right people are not deputed to the right place. This is the problem of the government, only sycophants are there.”
Tasneem Khalil is an independent Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist and the author of Jallad: Death Squads and State Terror in South Asia (Pluto Press, 2016). He tweets @tasneem.