B'deshi religious parties face ban, secularism 'cornerstone'

Dhaka: Islamist parties in Bangladesh face a ban from politics after the controversial 1979 fifth amendment was struck down by the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling that also paved the way for ensuring secularism as the "cornerstone" of the country's constitution.

Following the Appellate Division's decision upholding the High Court's landmark verdict that declared the Constitution's 1979 Fifth Amendment illegal, restrictions on formation of organisations based on religion were restored.

"Carrying out activities of any political party based on religion is now punishable offence under the special powers act," Law Minister Shafique Ahmed said.

Political parties and other organisations using religion as their guidelines now stand banned with cancellation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, he said.

Their activities are now punishable offence, he was quoted as saying in the media.

The Supreme Court ruling sets the stage to ban religious parities like the country's largest Islamist party like Jamaat-e-Islami.

The Law Minister said the Supreme Court ruling on fifth amendment has paved the way for ensuring secular, multiparty democracy and development in the country.

"By a historical judgement of our Supreme Court, secularism has been restored paving the way for the state to ensure secular multiparty democracy to move forward with its agenda of development," Ahmed said.

"Secularism will again be the cornerstone of our constitution," Ahmed said.

The 1979 Fifth Amendment was aimed to provide constitutional legitimacy to the governments in power ? military or otherwise ? following the 1975 assassination of the country's founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In April 1979 the legislature in Bangladesh ratified the 5th Amendment which provided that all amendments, additions, modifications made in the Constitution during the period between August 15, 1975 and April 9, 1979 were valid and would not be called in question before any judicial body of the country

Bangladesh's top court put on record its "total disapproval of martial law" in the country and suggested "suitable punishment" to perpetrators as it issued on Tuesday the full text of a key judgement that made the 5th amendment legalising military takeover unconstitutional.

In a detailed verdict, the apex court scrapped the bulk of the 1979 fifth amendment, including provisions that had allowed Religious political parties to flourish and legalised military rule.

The original constitution of 1972 embodied four fundamental principles of nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism. Socialism was dropped and secularism was replaced by Islamic republic.

Bangladesh banned religion-based politics after it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, but an amendment to the country's constitution in 1979 allowed Islamic parties to operate again.

In 1988, a second military-led government made Islam the state religion in the Muslim-majority nation and incorporated Koranic verse into the constitution. Neither of those changes are affected by the court verdict.

The High Court in a ruling in August 2005 declared the Fifth Amendment illegal in response to a petition challenging the legality of the Martial Law Regulation of 1977.

The judgement, however, said it was the Parliament which could make a law regarding punitive actions against the perpetrators.

The Supreme Court issued the full text of the 184-page judgement five months after the apex court pronounced the main order portion of the verdict, rejecting two leave-to-appeal petitions and upholding the 2005 High Court order but with some modifications.

The development comes two weeks after the ruling Awami League constituted a special parliamentary panel to review the constitution in a bid to restore the "secular" spirit of 1971 'Liberation War'.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ruling Awami League government today welcomed the landmark apex court verdict banning the use of religion in politics and declaring illegal past martial laws.

The party called the judgement as a ?milestone? for the country’s democratic process.

The Appellate Division (of the Supreme Court) judgement will be regarded as a milestone for the democratic process of the country,? Ahmed told PTI, two days after the apex court issued the full text of its February 2 judgement.

Ahmed said under the judgement, the religion-based parties including the Islamic ones became ineligible to carryout their politics but "it now the responsibility of the independent Election Commission to review the constitutions and activities of these parties".

The secularism would automatically be restored in the constitution in line with the Liberation War spirit with this judgment... formation of a democratic, non communal society where religion is the matter of anybody?s private affair is also the spirit of Islam,? he said.

Main opposition BNP, which has close alliance with the largest Islamist party Jamaat, did not make any immediate comment on the judgment.