Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, left, has been accused of being autocratic, while Zhaleda Zia, right, remains in jail for corruption. Photos: AFP & Reuters
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, left, has been accused of being autocratic, while Zhaleda Zia, right, remains in jail for corruption. Photos: AFP & Reuters

It’s an election year in Bangladesh and one that has been marked by political turmoil, notably the jailing of former prime minister Khaleda Zia in February over the Zia Orphanage Trust corruption case.

Zia’s only glimmer of hope was the High Court granting her four months’ bail in March, but the Supreme Court put a stop to that by putting the lower court’s move on hold a week later.

Given this, Zia’s beleaguered Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has accused Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — Zia’s arch-rival in the country’s infamous “Battle of two Begums” — and her Awami League government of increased repression.

Speaking to Asia Times, BNP Joint Secretary General Rohul Kabir Rizvi said the party attempted several peaceful protests against the verdict “as instructed by Zia”, but all were suppressed.

“We asked permission to hold rallies but were denied on multiple occasions. And then when we resorted to a peaceful black flag demonstration in front of our own party office, the police charged on us with water cannons and batons,” Rizvi added.

Rizvi also accused the AL government of jailing several BNP leaders and activists on false charges over the past five years.

BNP’s research wing claims that after the 2014 election thousands of cases were filed implicating a vast number of party members, while over 500 supporters were killed and over 700 abducted by law enforcers. Some of the latter are allegedly still missing — suspected to have been victims of extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearance.

“The AL government denies BNP the opportunity to exercise its democratic right as a party,” Rizvi said.

‘Influenced judiciary’

BNP leaders have alleged that the Supreme Court order denying Zia bail “reflected the ruling Awami League’s desire” to keep her in jail so she cannot participate in the national election in December.

Hours after the court’s order, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told a press briefing “Khaleda Zia and we [BNP] have been denied justice by the country’s apex court, the last resort of the people.”

The four-member Supreme Court bench allowed the Anti-Corruption Commission and government to lodge appeals against the lower court’s order for Zia to get bail and set May 8 as the date on which it would hear these. The former PM’s lawyers claimed this was ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unwarranted’, as the top court did not even give reasons for that.

However, the Zia Orphanage Trust case is just one of 34 cases the ex-premier is fighting. Even if the Supreme Court permits Zia to get bail, leaders of her party fear she may not be able to gain a release from jail due to legal complexities because she faces all these other cases.

The party has appointed famed British lawyer Lord Alex Carlile to “enrich the team of BNP lawyers and highlight Zia’s case in the global arena.” Carlile, a Queen’s Counsel, told Asia Times that had yet to read all the papers in the case.

“I am expecting the judges to act with complete independence and provide fair proceedings,” he said, when asked about BNP allegations of a “compromised judiciary”.

“It would be a disaster for Bangladesh’s reputation if they did not. The separation of powers is as fundamental a principle for Bangladesh as for any other country with our shared Common Law tradition,” he added.

‘Authoritarian regime’

Meanwhile, German think-tank Bertelsmann Stiftung said last month that Bangladesh was now under autocratic rule and even basic criteria for democracy were not being complied with. It said the country, formerly the world’s fifth largest democracy, was now “classified as an autocracy” because of the deteriorating quality of its elections.

But Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Haq rejected the think tank’s report. He told Asia Times that describing the Awami League government as autocratic was “intentional” and had no basis.

Haq said: “All the arms of a true democracy including judiciary and media are fully independent here.”

Responding to the BNP’s claims of repression, he said the party had full freedom to practice its democratic rights – “but that doesn’t mean, the law enforcers will not check their activities which harm the common people.”

BNP’s lack of strength

According to political analysts, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party lacks strong leadership and prudent decision making, which has given the Awami League a boost over the years.

Faruq Hasan, a political advisor with a foreign embassy in Dhaka, told Asia Times that immediately after Khaleda Zia’s incarceration, he attended a BNP briefing that “could have been a glorious opportunity for BNP leaders to cash in on public sympathy towards their jailed leader.”

“I thought they would explain their future strategy of winning back the people of the country. Unfortunately, the entire hour was used to explain the horrible prison conditions of Khaleda Zia and how much pain she was in,” he said.

Dhaka-based analyst and columnist Afsan Chowdhury also criticised the BNP’s decision to make Zia’s elder son Tarek Rahman its “acting party chief”. Rahman has sought refuge in the UK because he is also facing charges in relation to legal cases.

“How can a fugitive lead a party as big as BNP? The truth is BNP without Zia is a party in a leadership crisis,” he said.

BNP leader Rizvi, however, denied that. He claimed the party had “got stronger” because common people have seen “how the ruling Awami League unleashes its naked, unlawful aggression on BNP.”

The Awami League, meanwhile, has been campaigning for the election since the beginning of the year. Its chairperson Sheikh Hasina has asked for votes in a number of districts across the country while visiting as the “incumbent prime minister.”

BNP vice-chairman Ahmed Azam Khan said, “She [Hasina] asks for votes for her party while visiting districts to inaugurate development projects as the PM. Meanwhile, our leader [Zia] is intentionally put in jail. Where is the justice here?”

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