By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh’s High Court on Monday granted opposition leader Khaleda Zia a four-month bail after she spent more than a month in jail following her February conviction and five-year sentencing in a graft case.
Leaders of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) expect the former three-time prime minister, 72, to be freed in a day or two after the bail order reaches prison authorities.
Lawyer Moudud Ahmed, a member of the BNP’s policy-making standing committee, praised the court for granting bail. He said her conviction in a graft case surrounding an orphanage trust named after Zia was a result of political vengeance by the ruling Awami League party.
“Now, there is no bar to Khaleda Zia’s release. Very soon she will be free,” he told reporters, adding that the court had turned down a government appeal to defer the order for two more days.
Ahmed said bail was granted on four grounds including the length of the sentence (five years) and Zia’s health.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said prosecutors would move to stop Khaleda’s release by challenging the ruling at the appellate division.
“No one can say that Khaleda Zia will be freed tomorrow (Tuesday),” Deputy Attorney General Sashanka Sarkar told BenarNews, adding that a court in Comilla had issued a warrant against Zia in a separate case.
The court there issued a warrant for Zia to appear on March 28, Abdullah Al Mamun, an additional superintendent of police in Comilla, told BenarNews. She faces charges related to a February 2015 arson attack on a passenger bus that killed eight people.
Despite the possibility of challenges, Law Minister Anisul Huq said the government respects the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
“There have been allegations that the government dictated the punishment to Khaleda Zia. But today, the bail order from the High Court proves the government has not meddled into the activities of the judiciary,” he told BenarNews.
BNP ready for release
Following her conviction and sentencing on Feb. 8, Khaleda showed leadership by not allowing party leaders and members to resort to violence, said Mahbubur Rahman, another BNP standing committee member.
“She is an uncompromising leader; she never compromised the rights of the people. She respected the judiciary, fought the charges in the court and embraced the jail term,” he told BenarNews. “Now, the court has worked in accordance with the law and granted her bail.”
Defense attorney Mahbub Uddin Khokon said BNP members were looking forward to Zia’s release.
“If the High Court sends the order to the lower court today, Inshallah (God willing) Desh Netri (country leader) Khaleda Zia will be released tomorrow. Thousands of people will welcome her,” Khokon told BenarNews on Monday.
On Feb. 7, a day before she was to appear in court to hear her verdict, Zia told reporters that the Awami League-led government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought false allegations against her to keep her out of politics.
Zia was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling more than 21 million taka (U.S. $252,000) from the Zia Orphanage Trust, which she headed. She was transported to jail from the courthouse.
The court also sentenced her son, Tarique Rahman, who lives in exile in London, and four others to 10 years in prison and ordered them to pay back the trust funds.
Under the constitution, a person convicted of a criminal offense involving moral turpitude and drawing a prison sentence of more than two years would not be eligible to seek public office. The next general election is scheduled to take place by December or January 2019.