Security tightened in Bangladesh amid mounting tensions ahead of verdict against ex PM Khaleda Zia

Security tightened in Bangladesh amid mounting tensions ahead of verdict against ex PM Khaleda Zia

DHAKA - Bangladesh Wednesday tightened security amid mounting tensions over an impending corruption trial verdict against ex-prime minister and main opposition BNP chief Khaleda Zia tomorrow that may disqualify her from contesting the next general election slated for December. Elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and armed police were called out to guard Dhaka streets while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League said their activists would be ready to “assist police” if the BNP tried to foment any unrest over the verdict.

According to media reports, police in the past several days arrested over 1,000 BNP activists, including some senior leaders, suspecting they could spearhead a violent campaign if Zia is convicted. A Dhaka court is set to deliver the judgement in the trial in which Zia, 72, and five others, including her expatriate elder son Tarique Rahman, stand accused of embezzling 21 million takas (USD 252,000) in foreign donations meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust.

The prosecution said the charity, named after Zia’s slain husband – military dictator-turned-president Ziaur Rahman -existed only on paper. Legal experts said Zia, who served as premier for three terms, could face life imprisonment if found guilty of the charges while a conviction would simultaneously disqualify her from contesting the next general election slated for December.

Zia, meanwhile, in a press conference ahead of the verdict, blamed the government for unleashing a “reign of terror” ahead of the verdict and claimed she was implicated in a “false case” but said she was ready to face any fate.

“I believe the court will acquit me of all charges…It’s a false case and a tool to harass me and my family…but if the judgement is delivered to appease the ruling quarters that will create a history of stigma,” she said. Her party had boycotted the 2014 polls over its demands for an election-time non-party government, and became the opposition outside parliament. But it is expected to contest the upcoming polls.

Political analysts said the BNP might see a political split as several senior leaders could disassociate themselves from Zia as her son Rahman, the senior vice president of the party, is seen as wielding authority from London while ignoring party veterans. Rahman is believed to have sought asylum in Britain to evade justice as he is also being tried on several charges, including a 2004 grenade attack on a rally of the then opposition Awami League that killed 23 people and in which Hasina narrowly escaped.

Zia, in a meeting of the party’s highest policy making national executive committee last week, warned of severe consequences against any attempt of “betrayal” saying she would remain with the party whatever the court verdict.

The main opposition party, which claims the charges are part of a plot to keep its leader out of the general election, has threatened to take to the streets if she is convicted.

The ruling Awami League, however, has denied it saying if Zia is not guilty, then it will be proven in court. It has also called on its supporters to be vigilant if the BNP launches protests. Earlier, Zia had urged her party supporters to hold “peaceful programmes”. “Please don’t do something foolish that can put the party in danger. Remain united,” she said last week.

Meanwhile, jail officials said they have taken required measures keeping in mind the impending verdict while Home Minister Asadsuzzaman Khan Kamal said if convicted Zia would get facilities she deserved in prison. “She is a former prime minister and if the court hands her down the sentence, she will be provided with all facilities she deserves,” he said.

The BNP chief, however, called upon the Awami League to hold the next general election in a free, fair and peaceful manner through talks while shunning “the path of threat and repression” and asked party activists to wage a “peaceful” campaign for credible elections. Awami League leader and road transport minister Obaidul Quader said the past military-backed interim government had filed the case against Zia in 2008 with the present government having no link to the process.

He alleged that Zia did her best to upset the trial but failed. The ex-premier on November 30, 2014 lost her last ditch effort to evade the graft trial as the Supreme Court turned down her second ‘leave to appeal’ petition challenging her indictment and asked her to face trial in the lower court. The high court earlier validated the trial in the lower court which on March 19, 2014 had indicted Zia on two graft charges brought by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).

The ACC alleged that the two charities, the other being the Zia Charitable Trust, existed only on paper and a huge amount of money was misappropriated in the name of the two organisations while Zia was premier during the BNP’s 2001-2006 government. Zia and three of her aides in particular were accused of syphoning off 31.5 million takas (USD 400,000) from the Zia Charitable Trust alone while she is also accused of leading a group of five people, including her eldest son, in embezzling another 21.5 million takas (USD 277,000) in funds meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust.