A Special Court in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka on Thursday convicted former Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia in a graft case involving an orphanage and handed her a five-year prison sentence.

Zia’s conviction in an election year could destabilize Bangladesh, which has already seen her rival, Sheikh Hasina, rule for 10 years. Zia’s party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had boycotted the last elections, giving Hasina’s Awami League a walkover. Political observers fear that Zia’s arrest could lead to violent reprisals by BNP’s supporters and allies.

Tarique Rahman, Zia’s elder son and the Senior vice chairman of BNP, was also handed a 10-year jail term in the case along with four others. These include former lawmaker Quazi Salimul Haq, former principal secretary to Zia, Kamal Uddin Siddique, her nephew Mominur Rahman and pro-BNP businessman Sharfuddin Ahmed.

They were accused of embezzling more than Tk21 million (US$252,000) from foreign donations intended for a charity named after Khaleda Zia’s husband, and former president, Ziaur Rahman. Zia’s chief counsel Khandakar Mahbub Hossain termed the verdict “dictated” and said, “It failed to reflect the truth.”

Soon after her conviction Zia had told her relatives that she “will be back. There is no need to cry. Do not worry and be strong.” On the way to the court her motorcade was joined and escorted by thousands of BNP leaders and activists and who defied law enforcers.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters shout slogans as they set fire during a protest in a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters shout slogans as they set a fire during a street protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: Reuters

After the verdict, Zia was taken to the Dhaka Central jail. Authorities had already renovated a special cell for her and Zia has been given permission from the court to have a helper with her in jail.

Implications for the BNP

The verdict in the Zia Orphanage Trust case could bar Zia from contesting general elections scheduled for later this year according to provisions of the Constitution. The BNP skipped the 2014 election and is likely to stay out for a five-year term following Zia’s conviction.

“The verdict proves no one is above the law,” Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anisul Haque told Asia Times. He added that the possibility of Zia contesting the next election now depends on the country’s Supreme Court. “As per the Constitution, a person cannot contest the national polls if he or she is sentenced to jail for two years or more.”

Zia’s son Rahman, currently a London resident, was expected to lead the BNP after his mother’s retirement. But the future of the party’s leadership is now in jeopardy.

BNP Standing Committee member Nazrul Islam Khan told Asia Times that Rahman will run the party from London in Zia’s absence. According to the party’s internal constitution, the senior vice chairman of BNP becomes the acting chair of the party if the chair is indisposed.

Appeal against ruling

“We will go to the higher court and file an appeal against this,” Zia’s counsel told Asia Times, explaining that verdicts delivered by the subordinate court are not final. He also expressed hope of Zia receiving bail promptly.

He added that the filing of an appeal means a verdict has been challenged and that the matter is yet to be resolved. This means the person convicted by the subordinate courts will have a chance to participate in polls, he said.

For now, the three-time prime minister will have to stay in jail for at least three days. With the weekend starting tomorrow, Zia’s lawyer will have to move the case to Sunday. But if getting the certified copy of the verdict is delayed, her bail procedure will be delayed as well. Zia’s bail also depends on the High Court’s decision.

A source within the ruling Awami League told Asia Times that they are planning to enact a new law to ensure that someone who is convicted even by the lower judicial court cannot contest the elections for the next five years. The law is being drafted but a final decision depends on future political developments.

Regional Stability in South Asia

In 2014, India played a key role to keep the Awami League in power, despite the BNP’s decision to boycott the polls. Indian diplomats pressed the Obama administration to grant recognition to the Awami League. The then US ambassador to Bangladesh was dispatched to Delhi to meet Indian diplomats before the US blessed the elections.

For years, India has supported the Awami League in a bid to keep out fundamentalist Islamic elements associated with the BNP. India and Bangladesh have also developed close coordination on counterterrorism efforts, which have led to the arrest of several major militant leaders. Indian intelligence also cooperated with Bangladeshi counterparts to investigate several major terror attacks, including one carried out by ISIS in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave a few years ago.

Both New Delhi and Washington are worried that the return of the BNP could lead to closer ties with Pakistan and lead to an escalation of attacks by groups such as Al Qaeda in the Indian peninsula and ISIS.  Zia’s conviction is unlikely to find much sympathy in New Delhi or Washington, diplomatic sources told Asia Times.