By Mahak Paliwal
On February 9, 2018, the verdict of the Zia Orphanage Trust case involving Khaleda Zia came out in Bangladesh. Khaleda Zia has been both an opposition leader and the former Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The renowned Zia Orphanage corruption case involves an orphanage which was premised in 2001-2006.
Khaleda Zia, along with her elder son and four others, was charged with misappropriating $248,154 from the trust. The Zia Orphanage Trust Case filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) of Bangladesh has resulted in the removal of Khaleda Zia from Bangladesh politics. The case was filed back in 2008, during the regime of the Caretaker Government. The Special Court has sentenced Khaleda Zia to suffer imprisonment of five years and the five co-accused, namely Tarique Rahman, Dr Kamal Uddin Siddiqui, Kazi Salimul Haque, Mominur Rahman, and Sharfuddin Ahmed, have been ordered to undergo ten years of imprisonment. The verdict was delivered in a closed courtroom in the middle of tight security. Mohammad Akhteruzzaman, the special court judge said, “She was given a shorter term considering her health and social status.” “Since the court has been able to prove the charges against her and considering her social and physical status, Zia has been sentenced to five years in jail in section 409 and 109 of the penal codes,” he added.
On the day of the verdict, the authorities were ordered to stay on high alert amid the threats of protests that might emerge as a result of the verdict. This was also insisted upon keeping in mind the repercussion that the state faced during 2014 and 2015 demonstrations, which led to arrest of approximately 2500 opposition members. Khaleda Zia was shifted to the central jail with high-end security from the court. The major political parties, along with the supporters of Khaleda, poured into the streets ahead of the verdict. Anisul Huq, the former Law Minister said, “The verdict proves that Bangladesh is not a criminals’ haven which was the case during the BNP regime.” He added, Khaleda’s conviction “proves that Bangladesh has the rule of law and that no one is above the law.” Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim said, “Khaleda Zia cannot be above the law. Our constitution says all citizens are equal before the law, and today’s verdict proved it once again.” Khalida Zia’s verdict gained worldwide headlines within hours of its pronouncement. “Bangladesh ex-PM Khaleda Zia guilty of corruption” published the BBC. Also, Al Jazeera published it as ‘Khaleda Zia jailed for five years in corruption case’. Furthermore, the verdict found its mention in all national and international newspaper agencies including AFP, AP, Xinhua, Hindustan Times and NDTV, and so on. #KhaledaZia and #ZiaOrphanageTrust were trending on social media.
Political repercussions of Zia’s imprisonment
Khaleda Zia undertook the position of Vice Chairperson for the BNP on March 1983, after the demise of her husband. Subsequently, she was chosen and declared the chairperson of the party on May 10, 1984, the position she held till a few days back. The conviction of Khaleda Zia has not only thrown her out of the leadership of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) but also, has made her incompetent to contest the upcoming elections in December if her conviction is not stayed by the higher judiciary. The constitution of Bangladesh debars any individual who has been sentenced to the jail term of two or more years or has disobeyed the ethical or moral misconduct from contesting parliamentary elections. The verdict has changed the entire game in the politics of Bangladesh. Her conviction might be problematic in holding credible election ahead. The analysts are forecasting her verdict as a major factor for gaining public sympathy in the upcoming elections. The civilians in Bangladesh are highly worried about the political dilemma this pronouncement will cause to them.
Prior to Khaleda Zia’s conviction, Gayeshwar Chandra Roy, a senior member of BNP expressed his fear of very “bad” consequences if the verdict is pronounced against the party leader. “I think the foundation stone for the fall of the AL-led government will be laid if any negative verdict is pronounced by the court at the behest of the government on February 8,” he said. The common man is scared of the complications this judgment will cause on democracy of the country and how steadily it will wipe away the hope of a good election. This might result in a one-party rule.
Opposition cries foul after verdict announcement
The answer as to whether the sentencing was a just and fair one remains disputable. The Bangladesh judiciary received an ample number of applications demanding “fair trial” for the ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia. “We are aware of the conviction of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia, and encourage Bangladesh to the guarantee of a fair trial,” said U.S. spokesperson. Mahbubey Alam, the attorney general of Bangladesh said, “There is no pressure from the government to give the verdict at the beginning of an election year. In fact, it is the BNP that has been dragging the case for nearly a decade. The high court, failing to find merit in the petitions, eventually cleared the way for the lower court to continue the trial proceedings,” he said. Khandker Mahbub Hossain, the leader of the ex-Prime Minister’s legal team claimed, “We didn’t get justice. We’ll go to the higher court.” Khaleda Zia and her party members claim this pronouncement to be a plot played against the leader and her family for political gains.
The aftermath of the conviction
Given the pronouncement, Khaleda Zia and her political party’s status in Bangladesh remains undecided for the near future. The verdict has resulted in the wide-scale advancement of the political arena and intensified the prevailing mistrust of civilians in the political parties. This apprehension of instability and mistrust might further complicate the politics in Bangladesh affecting varied national party’s leadership and politics. “This verdict will deepen the country’s existing political crisis and will damage people’s faith in the judiciary,” said Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Secretary General of the BNP. The upcoming elections may come accompanied with great chaos and criticism nationwide.
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