By Jesmin Papri
Khaleda Zia, chairwoman of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), is to return to a courtroom on Feb. 8 to hear the verdict in a corruption trial that could keep her from contesting the 2019 general election.
Zia, a former three-time prime minister, could be disqualified from seeking to lead her country again, if convicted. Her son, Tarique Rahman, who is BNP’s second in command but lives in exile abroad, is a codefendant in the case.
Political tensions are high in Bangladesh, with BNP leaders complaining that the ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, is using charges against Zia to intimidate the opposition. Zia and her son, her presumed successor, have been charged in more than 100 combined criminal cases ranging from money-laundering to arson.
In the case that will be decided on Feb. 8, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) filed charges against Zia, her son and four others for allegedly misappropriating 21.71 million taka (U.S. $260,800) from the Zia Orphanage Trust.
Judge Md Akhtaruzzaman announced the verdict date on Thursday after the prosecution and defense completed their arguments. Zia could face five years in prison, if found guilty.
The verdict would be the first one facing Zia.
“People will respond if injustice is done to Khaleda Zia,” BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi told BenarNews.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said authorities would be prepared to maintain peace and order when the verdict was announced.
“Police will respond if anyone tries to riot after the verdict,” he told journalists on Friday.
Meanwhile, BNP and Awami League leaders were arguing over the decision weeks ahead of the verdict.
“The government has already written the judgment. The verdict will reflect the desire of the prime minister,” BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told a press conference at the party’s central office in Dhaka on Thursday.
In response, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader asked, “Who told Mirza Fakhrul about sentencing Zia in the case?”
Polls in 2019
Political analyst Al Masud Hasanuzzaman, a professor of government and journalism department at Jahangirnagar University, said the courtroom decision will affect the next general election.
“The verdict will determine the course of Bangladesh politics. Political programs will be different if the verdict goes in favor of BNP or it goes against BNP,” he told BenarNews.
Voting must occur within 90 days of Jan. 28, 2019, according to Bangladesh’s Election Commission.
“The government wants to keep BNP away from the upcoming election by any means,” BNP’s Rizvi said, adding “BNP will not participate in the next general election if the government arranges it under a blueprint to ensure exclusion of BNP Chairwoman Zia from it.”
Meanwhile, Awami League leaders have been working with activists to field a strong slate of candidates.
Hasina will start her campaign on Jan. 30 after offering prayers at the Hazrat Shahjalal shrine in northeastern Sylhet, which political leaders traditionally visit to kick off their efforts.
“We have been working relentlessly to contest the upcoming parliamentary election,” Awami League General Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif said.
Zia faces charges in 34 criminal cases while her son, who lives in London, faces charges in 76 cases. He fled to the Britain in 2008 following his conviction and sentencing to seven years in prison in a money-laundering case.
On New Year’s Day, prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty against Tarique Rahman in two cases related to a grenade attack that targeted Hasina in August 2004.
A day later, authorities in Comilla district issued a warrant for the arrest of Zia and 48 other opposition leaders over an arson charge stemming from a deadly fire-bombing of a bus during anti-government protests in early 2015.
On Jan. 5, 2015, her party led protests and strikes to mark the first anniversary of the 2014 election, leading to the deaths of nearly 200 people over the following weeks. The BNP boycotted the 2014 general election in protest of the refusal by Hasina’s government to allow a neutral caretaker government to run the country during the electoral season.
A constitutional clause had stipulated such an arrangement, but the ruling party abolished it ahead of the polls four years ago.