Proposed truth commission: a travesty of truth and justice

Editorial, NewAge, October 5, 2007

The military-driven interim government has now come up with a puzzling idea – the idea of setting up a truth commission as an institutional mechanism through which corrupt businessmen will be able to avoid serving jail sentences, if they confess their financial crimes and pay fines as recompense. The rationale that the law and information adviser, Mainul Hosein, reportedly offered on Wednesday is that the process would help dispel the fears of businessmen, who will now be able to carry on their activities without being ‘hampered’ by anti-corruption drives. While it is of immense importance to remove the environment of fear generated by arbitrary drives, the idea of institutionalising the double standards of dealing with similar crimes by the businessmen and the rest of the populace in dissimilar ways contradicts the central tenet of the rule of law that upholds equality of citizens in the eyes of the law. The principles of the rule of law could never endorse the idea of awarding prison terms to some people, say the politicians, and providing amnesty to others, businessmen in the present case, for similar crimes. Besides, such double standards, if really adopted, would create serious complexities for the perceived commission to address such crimes committed by, say, politicians running businesses, or vice versa.

It has not escaped the public’s notice that the Fakhruddin Ahmed government broke with the judicial norms when it arrested scores of high-profile politicians and businessmen in its first few months in power without specifying the charges against them. Now that the adverse implications, particularly the economic implications, of that arbitrary actions have started surfacing, especially in the form of economic slowdown, the government has perhaps is desperate to manage the situation by way of making legal concessions to the unscrupulous sections of the business community. This is something like one mistake breeding another, and so on and so forth – a way that any prudent administration would always avoid.

The choice of name for the perceived commission seems, on the other hand, to be intended to echo the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up in South Africa in 1995. We find it a tragic trivialisation of the spirit and mandate of the historic South African commission, created to reconcile the majority black South Africans with their minority white counterparts, which was the need of the hour to avert a violent civil war. Besides, the essential goal of that process was not so much to grant amnesty to those who committed crimes – as is the case with Bangladesh’s proposed commission – as much as it was to reconcile the two sides in finding the way forward for a post-apartheid democratic South Africa. It must also be recognised that the South African commission, headed by no less than a man called Desmond Tutu, was formed under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, who, again, not only led the anti-apartheid movement but was also elected president before setting up of the commission. As such, there was neither a credibility crisis nor a legitimacy crisis that could undermine the South African commission’s findings in the years to come. Not the same could be said of the truth commission proposed by a government, which is already exposed to legitimacy crisis.

Under this circumstance, we urge the government to abandon the idea of going ahead with a ‘legal’ mechanism which is inherently inconsistent with the democratic value system that does not support the idea of inequality of citizens before the law.

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