Former Bangladeshi PM given added jail time for graft

Supporters of Khaleda Zia say verdicts were dictated by government
Former Bangladeshi PM given added jail time for graft

Khaleda Zia (center), former Bangladeshi prime minister and chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), leaves court after being sentenced to five years for graft charges on Feb. 8. (ucanews.com photo)      

Former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia has had a jail sentence for corruption doubled to 10 years just a day after she was sentenced to seven years for a separate graft case.

The High Court in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka dismissed an appeal from Zia’s lawyers on Oct. 30 against the previous sentence made in February over an orphanage corruption case and extended her jail term from five years to 10 years.

The BNP has claimed the allegations are "fabricated" and the verdict "dictated" by the government.

Zia, 73, leads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s second-largest political party. She is considered the arch-rival of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League.

On Oct. 29, a court sentenced her to seven years in jail for graft charges. Judge Akhtaruzzaman of the Special Judge Tribunal handed down similar sentences to three others for abuse of power in misappropriating funds from the Zia Charitable Trust.

The sentencing effectively bars Zia from contesting national elections to be held in late December or early January.

"The allegations are baseless and politically motivated. Khaleda Zia has been denied justice and she was convicted to fulfill the government’s desire to keep her away from the upcoming national election,"BNP secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam said during a press conference in Dhaka on Oct. 29.

S.M. Rezaul Karim, a lawyer and Awami League’s law secretary, hailed the judgment.

"We are satisfied with the verdict as the court has set an example against the culture of impunity. In the past we have seen people with power often enjoyed impunity. The judgment shows nobody is above the law," Karim told reporters.

Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, had a mixed reaction to the verdicts.

"Anyone found guilty of crime deserves punishment — be it Hasina or Khaleda Zia. However, it seems the verdicts are increasing in favor of the Awami League," Bishop Rozario told ucanews.com.

"We have a history of political rivalries and animosities between ruling and opposition parties, and the gulf is likely to widen with elections looming," he said.

Political observers say there is no questioning the court’s authority to punish someone found guilty but they believe that Zia’s conviction has political connections.

"There are huge corruption cases in the country where justice is delayed and denied, but Zia’s case became a priority," Shantanu Majumder, associate professor of political science at Dhaka University, told ucanews.com.

"The culture of dysfunctional politics makes people believe speeding up such cases stem for political animosities." 

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Zia’s jailing is the latest blow to the BNP’s aspirations to return to power after a decade in opposition.

The party and its allies boycotted the 2014 election after Hasina’s Awami League refused to reintroduce a non-party caretaker government system to oversee that election.

The move was seen as a "political blunder" as it gifted the Awami League a landslide victory with more than half of 300 seats won being uncontested.

Zia, widow of former military dictator Ziaur Rahamn, was prime minister from 1991-96 and 2001-06. Her eldest son and acting chairman, Tarique Rahman, has been living in exile in London since 2008. He was recently sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for his role in a 2004 grenade attack aimed at assassinating then opposition leader Hasina.

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