Former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia arrives at a court in Dhaka on August 10, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Mehedi Hasan
Former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia arrives at a court in Dhaka on August 10, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Mehedi Hasan

A corruption case involving former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia has put Bangladesh on edge, with many fearing the outcome could result in widespread violence.

A special anti-corruption court will deliver a verdict on Zia’s case on February 8. This is an election year for Bangladesh and she heads the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Zia is accused of embezzling Tk 2.1 crore (US$250,000) from foreign donations intended for a charity named after her late husband, Zia ur Rahman. The case was filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) of Bangladesh when an army-backed caretaker government was in charge in 2008. Popularly known as the ‘Zia Orphanage Trust Case,’ it is one of 36 cases filed against Begum Zia.

Her arch rival, the incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has made it clear that legal proceedings will continue and that the former premier will be penalized if found guilty. The BNP leadership says the ruling Awami League government is strong-arming the judiciary and using state machinery to pursue a political vendetta.

Anticipating blockades and protests, the government has already detained senior BNP leaders Gayeshwar Chandra Roy and Onindo Islam Omit. The BNP claims they were detained without arrest warrants. Cases have been filed against 900 BNP activists over alleged attacks on the police. Meanwhile, several other BNP leaders and activists have gone into hiding, party insiders told Asia Times.

In court, Zia has alleged the ruling party is manipulating the case for political gains. “The judiciary is in total panic. That’s why many say there is no environment or scope of getting fair justice in the country now,” she said.

The BNP suspects that the verdict in the case has been timed to coincide with an election year to ensure the opposition sits it out. The last general elections, in 2014, were also a walkover for the Awami League – because opposition parties boycotted it. If Zia is convicted for corruption, she could face up to seven years in jail; if she is convicted under the country’s penal code, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. The constitution of Bangladesh mandates that a convicted person who spends more than two years in prison cannot take part in a national parliamentary election.

Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told Asia Times that there is no pressure on the judiciary from the government. “It is the BNP which has been dragging the case for the last nine-and-a-half years.” Alam said the delays had been caused by Zia’s lawyers filing several petitions. “The High Court dismissed the petitions and eventually cleared the way for the lower court to continue the trial proceedings,” he said.

The BNP’s Senior Joint Secretary General, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, said the Zia Orphanage case had been filed with forged documents and false information. “This was done only to harass our chairperson (Zia),” he said. “The people of Bangladesh will not accept that. If the verdict is influenced, the BNP will deal with it politically. The next course of action will be taken after the announcement of the verdict.”

Political violence, legal quagmire

Violent confrontations in Bangladesh peaked during the last parliamentary elections four years ago. The main opposition parties boycotted those elections because the incumbent government refused to make way for a neutral caretaker government. The caretaker arrangement, intended to ensure fairness, had been in force since elections in 1991 but had been done away with by the ruling Awami League in 2010. The BNP alleges this was done to rig the vote.

The boycott resulted in one of the lowest turnouts in history. Naturally, Awami League supporters cast their votes and the party won nearly 80% of parliamentary seats.

Support from India helped the Awami League government gain legitimacy in the international community. The US was initially skeptical but gave its blessing to Sheikh Hasina’s premiership after the US ambassador flew to Delhi for meetings with the Indian government.

In Bangladesh itself, months of political violence before and after the election left hundreds dead and injured. The BNP and its main ally, the Jamaat-E-Islami, were accused of killing security forces and scores of citizens who flouted their blockades.

“They are out of the power for over a decade and the Awami League has only gotten stronger as a party. The BNP will not stand against the Awami League on the street”

The government reacted to the disruption aggressively. A joint force comprised of the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) and the police is alleged to have carried out extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests.

According to the BNP’s research, 78,323 cases have been filed against 783,238 BNP leaders and activists. The party claims 520 people were killed and 747 abducted by law enforcers. Around 157 persons are still missing.

Of the cases filed against Khaleda Zia, charge sheets have been submitted in 17. Twelve of those cases were filed during the tenure of army-backed caretaker government in power between 2006 and 2008. The rest were filed under the Awami League government, which has been in power since 2009.

After filing petitions and skipping some 143 hearings over the last six years, Zia appeared in court on October 19, following a three-month sojourn overseas, and obtained bail. According to her lawyer, BNP standing committee member Moudud Ahmed, the cases were filed in several locations across Bangladesh in order to harass her. “The government wants to stifle the BNP so that it can get a free pass in the upcoming election,” he told Asia Times.

BNP contingency plan

The BNP has yet to state its plans if Zia is convicted on February 8. “The verdict hasn’t been pronounced yet. We will devise our political strategy after the verdict,” Ahmed said.

Zia held an emergency meeting on January 27. When asked about what had been discussed, a senior BNP leader who requested anonymity told Asia Times that leaders and activists across the country had been put on alert. If the verdict goes against the party chief, the BNP will hold demonstrations across Bangladesh. As a long-term strategy, however, the party is considering mounting a stronger legal defense and building public support for Zia.

Political analyst and commentator Afsan Chowdhury believes the BNP will not be able to stage an effective protest if Zia is convicted. “They are out of the power for over a decade and the Awami League has only gotten stronger as a party. The BNP will not stand against [the AL] on the street,” he said.

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