Bangladesh's main opposition leader Khaleda Zia (L) leaves a court in Dhaka in 2017. Photo: AFP
Bangladesh's opposition leader Khaleda Zia, left, faces 17 years in jail, while many more cases are being investigated. Photo: AFP

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – one of the country’s biggest political parties – is enduring the worst days since its formation four decades ago, with its leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia languishing in jail for over a year.

Zia was found guilty of corruption and sent to jail for five years on February 8 last year. Then in October, a court ruling on her appeal doubled her jail term. She has been serving her time in a jailhouse in the older part of the capital, which once housed the Dhaka Central Jail.

The 73-year-old politician had been its only prisoner for the last year as others detained in the jail were shifted to the city’s outskirts.

The former PM was convicted ahead of the December 2018 national election, with judges acting on longstanding cases against her. Verdicts were given in just two of a total of 37 cases she faces.

Zia’s son Tarique Rahman, the party’s second-in-command, has also been convicted in two graft cases. A fugitive facing several arrest warrants, he has been living in London in self-exile since 2008.

Just six seats

Meanwhile, many independent observers have hailed the recent election outcome as “controversial”. Zia’s center-right BNP secured just six seats out of 300 parliamentary constituencies, the worst possible result for a party that won power and ruled Bangladesh three times since the country’s independence in 1971.

In absence of Zia, BNP went into the election as part of an alliance named Jatyio Oikkya Front (National Unity Front) led by Dr Kamal Hossain, a secular former foreign minister. But its alliance partner managed to secure just two seats beside the BNP’s six.

BNP’s arch-rival the Awami League and the grand alliance it led won a record 288 parliamentary seats. It has now formed a government under the leadership of Awami chief Sheikh Hasina, who has begun a third consecutive term.

However, the BNP has so far failed to reorganize following the massive defeat in the polls, which it describes as “farcical.” Its leaders and activists have been demoralized and there are no fresh protests to boost their morale.

To add to their woes, most of the party’s senior leaders have kept their heads down after the election, fearing harassment at the hands of the Awami League government.

‘Large-scale election rigging’

Barrister Moudud Ahmed, a senior leader of the BNP, told Asia Times the party is still figuring out its next course of action after the “rigged” ballot outcome. “We all knew that the election wouldn’t have been fair, but we never imagined such large-scale election rigging from the Awami League.”

Ahmed, who was Law and Justice Minister during the BNP’s last time in office from 2001 to 2006, said many BNP leaders and activists were in jail or on the run, as the government had continued to repress its rivals.

The party has claimed that from September 1 to October 5 last year as many as 276,277 party activists and leaders were hit with fictitious charges – 4,149 in all – in an effort to keep BNP out of the national poll.

But it said this sort of harassment was not new. On October 6, at a press conference, BNP secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said around 90,340 false cases had been filed against more than 2.5 million people linked to the party since 2009, when the Awami League came to power.

“They [Awami League] have been using the judiciary to [hinder] a strong opposition,” said Ahmed, “[And] the biggest example of their use of the judiciary to do this is the jailing of our leader Khaleda Zia.”

Ahmed, the former law minister, said the party’s first priority was to try to get Zia released. “We have been trying legally to secure bail for her in all the cases,” he said.

Zia: 19 cases pending

Barrister Ehsanur Rahman, one of Zia’s lawyers, told Asia Times she is currently implicated in 37 cases on charges of corruption, killing people by setting motor vehicles on fire, creating anarchy, violence, sedition, and making defamatory statements.

Zia is serving 17 years from just two corruption cases — 10 years in the Zia Orphanage Trust graft case and seven years in the Zia Charitable Trust graft case. Of the remaining 35, 19 cases are pending with different courts, while 16 other matters are still being investigated, Rahman said.

“Madam [Khaleda Zia] would have been free, had the law been allowed to take its own course. But the problem is almost all the cases are politically motivated and were lodged to harass her politically,” he said.

Lord Carlile: ‘A travesty’

In March last year, the BNP appointed British lawyer Lord Alex Carlile to boost the party’s legal team and highlight Zia’s case around the world.

However, the Sheikh Hasina government remained “silent” in reply to Carlile’s bid to get a visa. Later, the British lawyer went to Delhi to address a media briefing about what the party says are “baseless allegations” against Zia. After, he was denied entry to the Indian capital as well.

Speaking with Asia Times from London, Lord Carlile said: “I was neither granted nor refused a visa to Bangladesh. They [Bangladesh government] went silent. [Then] I was bizarrely refused entry to India on the grounds that my presence in Delhi would damage India-BD [Bangladesh] relations.”

Asked if he believed Khaleda Zia was sent to jail for political reasons, notably because last year was an election year in Bangladesh, he replied: “I do believe that – strongly. They wished effectively to destroy the opposition.”

He also said: “I believe she [Zia] is not getting justice at all. The trial and other proceedings are a travesty of correct criminal procedure.”

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch said in a recent report while it took no position on the merit of the cases, “Zia’s supporters point out that the corruption cases were filed by the same 2007-2008 military-backed government that also filed corruption cases against the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. After her Awami League came to office in 2009, all cases against Hasina were dropped.”

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