By Ali Mashraf
An analysis of the legal framework, the approach and the existing trends of the courts regarding handing out sentences in a country is crucial to evaluate and propose reforms to its penal policies. As such, on November 29, 2017, Bangladesh Law Digest- BDLD, the first of its kind student-run law journal of Bangladesh, hosted a seminar titled ‘Criminal Sentencing in Bangladesh’ at Department of Law, University of Dhaka (DU). Dr. Muhammad Mahbubur Rahman, Associate Professor of Law, DU was the keynote speaker, while Mr. Mohammad Golam Sarwar, Lecturer of Law, DU moderated the event. Law students from more than 20 public and private universities across Bangladesh participated in the seminar.
In his welcome speech, Mr. Mohamad Golam Sarwar greeted everyone and highlighted the aims and objectives as well as the past activities of BDLD. Appreciating the efforts of BDLD, he remarked that such initiatives are indeed fundamental to expanding and exchanging views regarding various critical legal issues. As he introduced Dr. Mahbubur Rahman, Mr. Sarwar said that Dr. Rahman viewed and delivered things differently that allowed the law students and practitioners of Bangladesh to analyze issues pertaining to the legal field from multiple dimensions. Afterwards, he invited Dr. Rahman to deliver his keynote speech.
At the onset, Dr. Muhammad Mahbubur Rahman provided a brief outline of his lecture mentioning that the earlier part would deal with the technical aspects of criminal sentencing, while the latter would focus on the practical aspects. He said that punishments handed out by judges should be proportional to the crimes committed by the offenders, consistent with the sentencing policy of the country and that the procedures should be transparent in order to ensure fairness and justice. However, he lamented over the fact that none of these were ascertained under the existing criminal sentencing practices in Bangladesh due to a wide discretion being provided to the judges.
He then focused on the mitigating and aggravating factors that can affect the quantum of the punishments but remarked that the decisions of our courts portray an inconsistency regarding this practice. Afterwards, Dr. Rahman presented the findings based on his analysis of 838 sentencing judgments of the Supreme Court from 1972 to 2010 and elaborated on them. He underlined the inconsistency of the judiciary in their approach towards sentencing, widespread occurrence of disproportionate punishments being handed out without due consideration to extenuating factors and precedents as well as a lack of normative guideline for imposition of death sentences and remarked that all these led to capital sentencing being a matter of lethal lottery.
Dr. Rahman also showed how the apex court whimsically and vaguely used certain terms, such as ‘ends of justice’, ‘facts and circumstances’, ‘interest of justice’, etc. to commute sentences without providing sound reasoning or detailed analysis. The findings of his data analysis portrayed how Bangladesh as a country had the 2nd highest execution rate despite having the 2nd lowest homicide rate in South Asia. The speech also emphasized upon the inter-judge disparity in criminal sentencing from his research findings, i.e. the rate at which individual judges handed out capital sentences or commuted them on the basis of their individual perception/theory of justice.
On the issue of mandatory death penalty still existing under our penal laws, he propounded that this endangered human lives rather than saving them as the offenders now thought of committing the graver offence e.g. murder following rape etc. to give themselves a chance to escape punishment. Towards the end, Dr. Rahman proposed to bring back the practice of sentencing hearing in our courts and extensive reforms in our sentencing practices including imposition of guidelines for the judges to follow while handing out punishments which would diminish the unguided discretions provided to them under the current practice.
A short Q&A session took place after the keynote speech. Based on the questions from the Q&A session, Sagor Kar from Department of Criminology, DU was adjudged as the best participant. Tokens of appreciation were presented to the keynote speaker and the moderator of the seminar by the members of BDLD. The seminar ended after a photo session of the participants with the guests.
BDLD started its journey in June 2015 with a view to providing the law practitioners and students of Bangladesh a brilliant platform to dissect, analyze and synthesize various issues pertaining to the legal field. It aims to host more such law seminars on pressing legal issues in future.