TORONTO - Quick, do you know the names of the Justices of the Canadian Supreme Court? How about the name of the Chief Justice? What is the role of the Supreme Court in our [Constitutional Monarchy, a.k.a. …] Parliamentary Democracy?
Relax. It’s not a test. The questions weren’t meant for the regular public or the average citizen. If, perchance, you are a Member of Parliament, or a member of Cabinet, you might want to “brush up”. Especially if you happen to be a Minister responsible for Canadian Border Services Agency, Justice, Democratic Institutions, Foreign Affairs or more immediately, Refugees and Immigration.
Why, you ask. Because they are about to be catapulted into the International limelight and scrutinized as the prime Minister has been on our dealings with China and India.
This time for a personality larger than life and an issue that goes to the core of our democratic values, human rights and the rule of law. On July 4, 2019, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, Surendra Kumar Sinha, entered Canada, via port of entry at Fort Eire, and filed a request for admission as a Refugee, an Asylum seeker.
Like me, you may be picking yourself off the floor at the learning the news. This is no run-of-the-mill individual; he is arguably a bona fide international, jurist super-star.
He is steeped in the knowledge of British (and North American variations of) Common Law, European Civil Code and how both have impacted Southeast Asian societies, with their unique values systems rooted in religious, ethnic and racial differences, over the centuries.
His country of origin, 200 million in population, until very recently among the poorest, most corrupt nations in the world, is no stranger to violence. It pains him to hear his native land so described. But the facts are that there is no shortage of political and commercial predators eager to take advantage of not-yet- mature socio-political infrastructures for personal political corporate or political gain. Canada’s own SNC Lavalin is among them.
Chief Justice SK Sinha grew up in the turmoil of an Indian Sub-Continent emerging from the shadow of a frequently bloody foreign occupation, then gripped by ensuing “local”, ethnic, religious strife, as what is now Bangladesh threw off the yokes of the British and Pakistani in their turn.
As a young man, he lived the political struggles that come with seeking the appropriate balance between authority (power) and rights (human and political), the exercise of those rights and authorities in the context of equality before the law without regard to any particular ethnic, linguistic, cultural origins or religious ideologies.
The country is not so ingrained in democratic processes that separate the various branches of government – legislative, executive and judiciary – in more mature democracies, to avoid the incursions of one branch into the other.
The legislative/executive branches are dependent on the electoral support of factional power-brokers for success. Reputable Press and Media retell courageously how these political warlords securing elections through intimidations, “extra-judicial” executions and the thuggery of their “armies of volunteers”, or when necessary the power of their purse.
These elected “representatives of the people” suffer interference from the Judiciary – defenders of the Constitution, the body of Laws which govern a civil society - poorly, if at all.
That is the environment in which, on January 1, 2015, SK Sinha became the first Hindu-minority Justice to be elevated to preside over the Constitutional Court – the Supreme Court – of Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country. It is an environment that he knew all too well. The National Press (The Daily Star, the Dhaka Tribune) and digital media reported widely on the attempted arson of the judge’s village home in December of 2013.
Undeterred, then and after his promotion from the Appelate Division, he determined to ensure a separation of powers, the independence of the Judiciary, re-enforcing the rule of law, fighting corruption.
His mantra was the constant refrain that the Founding Fathers vested all authority in the Constitution, of which the Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter - particularly article 7. (1) and (2). His name soon became a household word. For the Government, a fighting word.
A reading of the wire services and coverage by English language Press in South-East Asia, makes one wonder how he survived as long as he has. Italian-Canadians know only too well the outcome in another struggle between magistrates – Falcone and Borsellino – and the forces that operate for their own “corporate interests”, public be damned.
The struggle between the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the ruling Party came to a head when, in September of 2017, Justice SK Sinha tabled a 799-page unanimous, scathing SC decision nullifying the 16th amendment to the Constitution (passed by Parliament in 2014) giving Parliament the power to remove Justices of the Supreme Court.
The Government began a torrent of attacks designed to besmirch and beat into submission CJ Sinha. Friends and family began to feel the pressure. Within two weeks, for the sake of “peace and honour” among the branches of Government CJ Sinha took a temporary leave of absence.
But there was no peace to be had. CJ Sinha spirited his wife out of the country, on November 17th he issued his resignation, making his way first to Singapore, then Australia and the USA.
As of July 4th, he is in Canada. He and his wife both seek refuge.
They have travelled through three “safe third countries”. Last February, CJ Sinha filed papers as an asylum seeker in the USA; his wife did not. He was never interviewed.
Will Minister Ahmed Hussen, a former refugee, have a problem?