By Sharif Khiam Ahmed
From her cell in a prison where she’s the lone inmate, Khaleda Zia looms large over Bangladesh politics, even though the three-time former prime minister has not contested an election in a decade.
Zia, the first woman to hold that office in Bangladesh, is serving out corruption convictions, which some said were politically motivated to sideline her ahead of a general election at the end of this month.
The opposition leader whose BNP party boycotted national polls five years ago this time has been barred from personally participating in the Dec. 30 election, leaving a question mark as to who can effectively challenge Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – Bangladesh’s longest serving leader, who is seeking a record fourth term.
On Sunday, the nation’s Election Commission threw out candidacy papers that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party had submitted on her behalf, citing last week’s ruling disqualifying anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison from running for office.
“The ruling party is actually afraid. Their popularity has decreased. That’s why the BNP has been crippled in this way,” BNP standing committee member Moudud Ahmed told BenarNews, referring to the rulings against Zia, 73.
In February 2018, as she left a court hearing, Zia told her supporters that the government’s legal moves against her were “an attempt to use the court against me, in an effort to sideline me from politics and elections and to isolate me from the people.”
“I will be back, there is no need to cry,” she told her weeping supporters.
Entry into politics
Zia’s political life began in tragedy.
In the early morning hours of May 30, 1981, her husband, whom she married 21 years earlier when she was just 15, lay dead alongside two aides and six body guards.
Ziaur Rahman, who had founded the BNP in the late 1970s and became the country’s president in 1977, was killed by an army assassination squad during a coup while staying at a government rest house in Chittagong.
The gruesome event catapulted his young widow, who was seen until then as a demure first lady and mother of their two sons, into the people’s political consciousness in a fledging nation forged out of a series of bloody events. Zia emerged to inherit the mantle of his party’s leadership.
The widow joined a wide umbrella of political parties in a grueling nine-year campaign of strikes and protests that eventually forced Lt. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the leader of Bangladesh’s military government, to step down in December 1990.
Emajuddin Ahmad, former vice chancellor of the University of Dhaka, said Zia’s move to lead the movement against authoritarian rule attracted many Bangladeshis to her political party.
“In fact, it was her wisdom that gave the party a strong footing and a force that had a lasting effect on the country,” Ahmad told BenarNews.
But while analysts credited Zia for reviving her husband’s party, many wondered if she was ready to grapple with national issues, as a young woman and reluctant recruit to politics.
Despite her lack of experience, Zia was buoyed by sympathy over her husband’s death at the hands of rebellious officers, and she led the BNP to a stunning victory in parliamentary elections in 1991, when she became the first woman to serve as PM in the Muslim-majority country.
Record in office
As Bangladesh’s leader, Zia aggressively promoted vocational training and education, while also expanding opportunities for small-scale businesses, particularly those owned by women.
Before she took office, less than half of the country’s population of 120 million people was literate, according to the United Nations.
Zia led Bangladesh as prime minister thrice and served in the parliament as the leader of the opposition twice.
By the end of her third term, aides credited her leadership for keeping the nation’s GDP growth rate at above 6 percent.
But even though she headed a parliamentary democracy and had helped end military dictatorship in her country, Zia was criticized for a record that was not friendly to human rights.
In 2004, she oversaw the establishment of the Rapid Action Team, an elite security force that later became known as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and which remains notorious for committing alleged extra-judicial killings.
As prime minister, Zia also enacted the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act, a law that, critics said, was used to restrict free speech over the internet. The law evolved into the 2018 Digital Security Act, under her reigning nemesis, Hasina.
During her time in power, Zia also could not steer clear of graft allegations that had engulfed previous governments. Her two full terms as prime minister – from 1991 to 1996, and again from 2001 to 2006 – were tainted by suspicions of pervasive official corruption.
Two months after Army chief Gen. Moeen U Ahmed, along with a group of military officers, launched a bloodless coup in January 2007, Zia’s eldest son, Tarique Rahman, was arrested on corruption charges. Her youngest son, Arafat, was also arrested and detained the following month on similar charges.
In September 2007, security forces also arrested Zia on allegations of corruption as the interim government showed its determination to root out graft during the emergency rule.
Sheikh Hasina, who was then a former prime minister, had also been arrested two months earlier on multiple charges of extortion and corruption. Both women were detained in the same special prison set up inside a compound at parliament.
Zia’s sons were eventually released on bail in 2007, while the Bangladesh Supreme Court on Oct. 4 of the same year ruled that the trial against her could continue. Tarique went on a self-imposed exile in London and Arafat died of a heart attack three years ago while in Malaysia.
Not always arch rivals
Hasina, whose father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975 while serving as the nation’s first president, joined forces with Zia in the 1980s to oust General Ershad.
After Ershad was removed from power, a neutral caretaker government oversaw the February 1991 election in which BNP won 140 seats, 11 short of a majority. As BNP was the only party capable of forming a government, the elected lawmakers supported Zia as the country’s first female leader.
But Zia’s election spurred a bitter rivalry with Hasina and dragged the nation into a spiral of political violence.
Since Hasina secured her third term as prime minister after the BNP had boycotted the 2014 election, the ruling Awami League has hounded opposition leaders, according to Zia’s supporters.
In the weeks before Zia’s first sentencing in February 2018, hundreds of BNP activists were arrested and detained, opposition leaders said, alleging that the government’s move was part of Hasina’s attempts to outmaneuver Zia.
But BNP leaders, during recent news conferences, vowed to participate in the elections even if their party leader remained in prison.
Zia’s son and heir-apparent, Tarique, was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in October over a grenade attack on a political rally attended by Hasina in 2004.
‘They have squeezed me’
Nowadays, Zia, is serving 10 years in prison after her conviction in two unrelated graft cases, including charges of embezzling funds for an orphanage trust set up when she was prime minister.
Zia’s health is deteriorating as she remains behind bars at a little-used 19th-century jail, aides said.
Her supporters have appealed the charges, expressing hope that she would be acquitted before the Dec. 30 general election.
“Nobody will be allowed to score a goal this time on a playground void of opposition,” local newspapers quoted her as telling supporters the day before her first sentencing.
But on Nov. 28, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that candidates sentenced to more than two years in jail or awaiting decision on appeals could not participate in elections.
Afterwards Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said that the decision effectively barred Zia from contesting next month’s balloting.
“While everyone is busy for the election, they have squeezed me with cases,” Khaleda Zia told the court on Nov. 14 during a hearing on one of her graft cases.
She faces 34 other cases, related to corruption, violence, sedition and fabricating history, but has denied all the charges against her.
“It’s clear that we should consider preparing that Khaleda Zia will not be freed easily,” Ataur Rahman, a former political science professor at the University of Dhaka, told BenarNews.
Another analyst suggested that Zia’s imprisonment could backfire on the ruling Awami League.
“Undoubtedly this imprisonment is enriching Khaleda Zia. Her political wisdom is getting stronger. People’s sympathies are rising towards the BNP chairperson. It is also increasing her popularity,” said M. Anwar Hashim, a former diplomat.