In a recent New York Times article titled "Quietly Crushing a Democracy: Millions on Trial in Bangladesh," author Mujib Mashal painted a bleak picture of the state of democracy in Bangladesh. However, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the article is riddled with misinformation and lacks a nuanced understanding of the complex political and judicial landscape of the country. This article seeks to challenge the claims made in the aforementioned piece and provide a perspective more grounded in reality on Bangladesh's democratic journey.
A Complex Legal Landscape
One of the central claims in the New York Times article is that millions of opposition party members in Bangladesh are embroiled in politically motivated court cases. While it is true that Bangladesh’s formal justice system faces challenges, including large case backlogs and limited access for vulnerable groups, the assertion that millions are targeted solely due to their political affiliations is misleading.
As of June 2023, there are approximately 42,18,875 pending undertrial cases in Bangladesh. While this number is undeniably high, it encompasses a wide range of cases, including criminal, civil, and administrative matters. More specifically, total number of under trial pending criminal cases are 16,85,350 as of June, 2023 and it is crucial to recognize that not all of these cases are politically motivated, and many are the result of various legal disputes.
Moreover, Bangladesh has been taking significant steps to address these challenges. In 2022, the Evidence Act was amended to recognize digital and electronic records as admissible evidence in court. This amendment aims to streamline court proceedings, ensuring a more efficient and expeditious justice system. Additionally, the amendment omitted sections that prohibited raising questions against the character or prior sexual behavior of victims in rape cases, a positive step towards safeguarding the rights of victims.
A Digital Leap in Access to Justice
One of the notable developments in Bangladesh’s justice system is the Use of Information Technology by Court Act, 2020, which introduced a virtual court system. This system allowed people to participate in court proceedings remotely via video conferencing, a critical innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Petitions heard during pandemic314842
- bails granted during pandemic158507
During the pandemic, 314,842 petitions were heard, and 158,507 bails were granted through virtual court proceedings. This not only ensured access to justice during a challenging time but also demonstrated Bangladesh’s commitment to modernizing its legal infrastructure.
Enhancing Transparency and Efficiency
In addition to virtual courts, Bangladesh has introduced various other measures to enhance transparency and efficiency within its judicial system. These measures include SMS notifications for witnesses to communicate court dates and ensure their timely appearance. Online Cause Lists, Judicial Monitoring Dashboards, and the MyCourt mobile app have also been introduced, allowing individuals to stay informed about their cases’ progress and empowering judges to manage their caseloads more effectively.
Moreover, the government has developed a comprehensive Mediation Manual, providing guidance to judges, District Legal Officers, panel advocates, and other mediators involved in the process. This initiative promotes a structured and uniform approach to mediation, aiming to reduce case backlog and expedite justice.
A Multifaceted Democracy
The New York Times article attempts to portray Bangladesh as a democracy in crisis, where institutions, including the police, military, and courts, have been captured and controlled by the ruling party. While it is essential to scrutinize the state of democracy in any country, it is equally crucial to understand the unique challenges and context of each nation.
Bangladesh has faced political instability and polarization between the two major parties, the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Trust issues between these parties have indeed hampered democratic progress. However, attributing all these issues to the current government’s actions oversimplifies a complex history of political rivalry and power struggles.
Democracy: A Regional Perspective
To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the state of democracy in Bangladesh, it is necessary to consider the broader context of South Asian democracy. Each country in the region faces distinct challenges and dynamics.
For example, India, the world’s largest democracy, grapples with rising religious and social tensions, threats to freedom of speech, and concerns about the independence of democratic institutions. Similarly, Pakistan has a history of military intervention in politics, leading to periods of military rule. Sri Lanka faces economic challenges and concerns about sovereignty due to its growing reliance on China for infrastructure projects. Myanmar’s complex history of military rule and civilian protests culminated in a military coup in 2021.
Each of these South Asian nations faces unique challenges and complexities on their democratic journeys. While concerns about the state of democracy exist, it is essential to recognize the efforts by civil society, activists, and international organizations working to promote democratic values and institutions in the region.
A Nuanced Perspective
In conclusion, while Bangladesh faces its fair share of challenges in its democratic journey, it is essential to address these issues with a nuanced and balanced perspective. Misinformation and one-sided narratives only serve to hinder progress and understanding. Bangladesh has taken significant steps to modernize its justice system, enhance transparency, and improve access to justice for its citizens.
Furthermore, assessing the state of democracy in Bangladesh requires an understanding of the country’s complex political history and the unique challenges it faces in the broader South Asian context. Rather than painting a dire picture, it is more productive to acknowledge the progress made and support initiatives aimed at strengthening democratic institutions.
Bangladesh’s democratic journey is a work in progress, like many other nations around the world, and it deserves a fair and accurate assessment that considers the facts and complexities on the ground.
About the Author
Arafat Hosen Khan is a Barrister at Law & Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. He is currently serving as the Chairman of the Department of Law, North South University. He is also an “O’Brien Fellow” of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill University.