South Asia

Bangladesh's Politics Set to Face Fresh Turmoil Over Graft Case Against Zia

As Hasina kicks off poll campaign, BNP accuses Awami League of 'political vendetta', threatens to take to the streets if Zia is convicted on February 8.

Sheikh Hasina (left), Khaleda Zia. Credit: Reuters

With the 11th national parliamentary election due in the last quarter of this year, the relatively quiet political arena of Bangladesh has turned violent, centring a lower court verdict against former three-time Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, scheduled for February 8.

Anticipating blockades, processions and political standoffs, the Awami League (AL)-led Bangladesh government came out against its arch rival and main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – the party which Zia heads – in the last few days.

Law enforcers detained senior BNP leaders Gayeshwar Chandra Roy and Onindo Islam Omit without arrest warrants on Tuesday, claims BNP. Cases were also filed by the police on the same day against 900 BNP activists over alleged attacks on law enforcers and vandalising a prison van in front of the high court area in the capital Dhaka.

Several BNP leaders and activists went into hideout to avert detention and arrest, party insiders told The Wire.

The verdict in the case – known as the Zia Orphanage Trust case – could possibly keep Zia out of the elections due this year-end. Filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) of Bangladesh during the time of the army-backed Caretaker Government in 2008, this case is one of 36 cases she is battling now.

The case is filed under the penal code and the ACC Act. If Zia is convicted under the penal code, the maximum penalty could be life imprisonment whereas it would be a maximum of seven years if convicted for corruption.

As per the constitution of Bangladesh, a convicted person with over two years of jail term cannot take part in a national parliamentary election.

Zia’s arch rival, the incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made it clear that the legal proceedings would move at their own pace and Zia would be penalised if found guilty by any court over any graft charge.

Hasina on Tuesday formally kicked off her election campaign. She flew to the northeastern district of Sylhet and sought votes for her party in the upcoming election. In stark contrast, on the same day, Zia appeared for the trial in a separate corruption case filed during the AL rule.

The BNP leadership, including Zia, believe the sitting AL government is compromising the judiciary and is using the state machinery to pursue its own political vendetta and keep BNP out of the national election.

They said a ‘sudden haste’ in having the verdict on Zia Orphanage Trust case at the beginning of an election year is simply a part of its blueprint of conducting an opposition-free partisan election – like the one took place in 2014.

While appearing in court for the hearing, Zia also expressed her doubt about getting fair justice from the court. She said:

“The judiciary is in total panic. That’s why many say there is no environment or scope of getting fair justice in the country now.”

What is the Zia orphanage case about?

Zia, her son Tarique Rahman, who has been living in London for nine years, and four others – Qazi Saleemul Haq, a former BNP lawmaker Syed Ahmed, a businessman with close ties with BNP, Gias Uddin Ahmed, a close friend of Tarique Rahman, and Sharifuddin Ahmed, businessman and a friend of Saleemul Haq – are the accused in the case.

According to the case statement, on June 2, 1991, during Zia’s first tenure, an account was opened at the Ramna corporate branch of the state-owned Sonali Bank. The accountholder of that fund was the ‘Prime Minister Orphanage Fund’. A total of Tk 4.44 crore ($0.53 million) – mostly from foreign donations – was deposited in that fund.

Two years later, on September 5, 1993, Zia Orphanage Trust was established. A new bank account under the name of the Trust was opened at Gulshan New North Circle branch of the same Sonali Bank on October 9, 1993.

On September 5, 1993, Zia issued a Tk 2.33 crore ($0.27 million) cheque from the Prime Minister’s Orphanage Fund to the Zia Orphanage Trust on the pretext of building an orphanage in Bogra – the home town of her husband, late President Ziaur Rahman.

On November 15 the same year, the cheque was deposited into the account of the trust. Later, Tk 4 lakh ($4,822) was withdrawn from the trust account and Tk 2.77 lakh ($3,340) of it was spent to purchase 2.79 acres of land at Gabtoli in Bogra under the name of Zia Orphanage Trust.

In the following 13 years, between 1993 and April 2006, there was no activity of the trust and the amount saved in the account of the trust grew to Tk 3.37 crore ($0.40 million) with accrued interest.

In April, June and July of 2006, Zia’s son Tarique Rahman, also the chairman of the Zia Orphanage Trust, transferred Tk 3.3 crore ($0.39 million) from the trust account in six cheques to an FDR (fixed deposit receipt) account opened by his relative Mominur Rahman with the Gulshan branch of Prime Bank.

By February 7, 2007, most of the Tk 3.3 crore ($0.39 million) was again distributed into new FDR accounts opened with Prime Bank’s New Eskaton branch at Ramna under the names of Qazi Saleemul Haque, Syed Ahmed, Gias Uddin Ahmed and Sharifuddin Ahmed. Finally, on February 15, 2007, Tk 2.1 crore ($0.25 million) was embezzled by withdrawing it through pay orders from two of the FDR accounts, said the case statement.

Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia appearing for the hearing of the case. Credit: Reuters/File

A free and fair trial?

Talking to The Wire, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said the judiciary in Bangladesh was independent of the executive branch of the government. “There is no pressure from the government to give the verdict at the beginning of an election year. In fact, it is the BNP that has been dragging the case for nearly a decade.”

Alam said Zia’s lawyers, on a number of occasions, had filed petitions in the high court seeking a directive on the lower court to expunge the deposition of the investigation officer in the case. “The high court, failing to find merit in the petitions, eventually cleared the way for the lower court to continue the trial proceedings,” he said.

Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, senior joint secretary general of BNP told The Wire that it will be a “phone call verdict” rather than a “court verdict”. The case, according to Rizvi, was filed with forged documents and false information. “This is a politically motivated case, only to harass our leader,” he said.

Rizvi said the AL government will not be successful in keeping Zia out of election. “The people of Bangladesh will not accept that. If the verdict is influenced, BNP will deal with it politically. BNP will take the movement on to the streets and it will ultimately topple the government,” he said.

AL presidium member Faruq Khan, meanwhile, said that BNP was trying to politicise “a matter of judiciary”.

“AL has nothing to do with the case. It was filed by the country’s anti-graft body during the time of the caretaker government. They only (BNP) have confidence on the judiciary when a verdict works in its favour.”

“Also why are they (BNP) anticipating that their chairperson will be convicted in the case? This is because they know she is guilty of the crime and all the evidences speak of her wrongdoings,” he said.

Khan said if BNP tries to take it to the streets and create political movements, AL leaders and activists will take to the streets. “We are a people’s party and we never back out from going to the streets for people’s sake,” he added.

Political violence and legal quagmire

Violent confrontation on the streets was at its peak during the last parliamentary election in Bangladesh. Conducted on January 5, 2014, the election was boycotted by the main opposition BNP and its alliance, who wanted the reinstatement of the neutral caretaker government system – which AL abolished after it came into the power in 2009 – to oversee elections.

Due to the main opposition boycott, voter turnout was a record low in Bangladesh’s history and more than half of the parliamentary seats went uncontested. On a low turnout, the ruling AL bagged nearly 80% of the seats, leaving Bangladesh effectively without a ‘true’ parliamentary opposition.

Meanwhile, months of political violence before and after the controversial election have left hundreds dead and injured across the country. BNP and its main ally Jamaat-E-Islami activists’ allegedly attacked and killed people who refused to honour their blockades, as well as security forces and members of the AL and its ally.

The AL government responded strongly. A joint force comprising the paramilitary unit Rapid Action Battalion, Border Guards Bangladesh and the police, allegedly carried out extra-judicial executions, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests over the opposition activists and leaders.

Violent confrontations on the streets was at its peak during the last parliamentary election in Bangladesh. Credit: Reuters/File

According to the statistics of the research wing of BNP, post-2014 election, a total of 78,323 cases have been filed implicating 7,83,238 BNP leaders and activists, while 520 people were killed and 747 were abducted by law enforcers. Around 157 people still remain missing – suspected to become either the victims of extra-judicial killing or enforced disappearance.

A total of 36 cases have been filed against Zia alone, out of which chargesheets of 17 have already been submitted. Out of those cases, 12 were filed during the tenure of army-backed caretaker government between 2006 and 2008. The rest were filed during the AL government which came into power in 2009.

After skipping the hearings with time petitions for 143 times over the last six years, Zia appeared before the court on October 19, 2017, after returning from London, following a three-month sojourn and obtained bail. On that day, she started giving statements defending herself, citing government action against her and her party leaders.

According to Zia’s lawyer and BNP standing committee member Barrister Moudud Ahmed, the cases were filed in several places countrywide only to harass her. “The government wants to stifle the BNP so that it can get a free pass in the upcoming election,” he told The Wire.

Ahmed also said that right after AL assumed power in 2009, a total of 12 cases filed against the incumbent Prime Minister Hasina during the time of caretaker government were withdrawn.

BNP’s contingency Plan

When asked what BNP will do if Zia is convicted, Ahmed said, “The verdict hasn’t been pronounced yet. We will devise our political strategy after the verdict.”

Zia, on January 27, called an emergency meeting of the standing committee after the court announced the verdict date. When asked about the meeting, a senior BNP leader, who preferred anonymity, said that a decision to alert leaders and activists across the country had been made during the meeting.

If the verdict goes against the party chief, BNP will hold demonstrations, strikes and protest rallies. However, as a long-time strategy, the party is considering mounting a stronger legal defence and boosting public support over the issue, said the BNP leader.

Political analyst and commentator Afsan Chowdhury said that personal animus between the two leaders had helped foster a winner-takes-all approach to Bangladeshi politics in which the futility of rigged elections forces the opposition on to the streets.

He, however, believes that BNP now lacks the capacity to confront AL on the streets.  “The ruling AL government has been very successful in politically decapitating BNP over the years. Their (BNP) leaders and activists are bogged down with cases after cases,” he said, “I don’t think BNP will be able to stage any effective demonstrations.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist from Bangladesh.