Begum’s arrest and rising sentiments in Dhaka
After Begum Zia’s arrest, allegations of it being politically motivated were expected from the BNP; after all, they could hardly have hailed the judgement. Bangladesh's population, however, is now polarised
Not surprisingly, Begum Khaleda Zia’s jailing, following her sentencing to five years of rigorous imprisonment by Special Judge’s Court-5 in Dhaka, has been seen in the context of the parliamentary elections in Bangladesh, scheduled for the end of 2018. Begum Zia had told a news conference the day before the judgement’s delivery on February 8, “This [the case] is an attempt to use the court against me, in an effort to sideline me from politics and elections and to isolate me from the people.”
One does not know whether she had in mind Article 66 (d) of Bangladesh’s Constitution, which bars a person, convicted of an offence involving moral turpitude, and sentenced to not less than two years’ imprisonment, from contesting a parliamentary election before the lapse of five years after release. Whatever it is, the verdict in the present case will prevent her from contesting unless a higher court stays it. It will similarly affect her son, Tarique Rahman, senior vice-chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and in self-imposed exile in Britain since 2008. He and four others, convicted in the same case and for the same offence, have been sentenced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment and fined Taka 2.1 crore each.
Is Begum Zia’s allegation correct? It would be, if the charge on which she has been convicted is false, and the punishment is disproportionately high compared to the nature of the charge — that the accused have siphoned off Taka 21.1 crore (roughly $253,000) received as donation to the Zia Orphanage Trust, named after her husband, general-turned president Zia-ur Rahman, when she was the Prime Minister. The question of punishment is important as the bar under Article 66 (d) would not have applied if it was less than two years.
The outcome of the appeal against Begum Zia’s sentencing, which her lawyers plan to lodge, will go a long way in indicating whether the charges are genuine and the punishment has been excessive. Pending that, one needs to remember that Bangladesh’s Anti-Corruption Commission had filed the present case with Ramna Police Station, Dhaka, on July 3, 2008, when a military-backed caretaker regime, installed after the coup of January 11, 2007, was running the country.
There was then neither an Awami League Government nor any indication that the party would come to power following the next elections due by the end of 2008. Hence, the BNP’s recent claim that the case “was initiated with a sinister motive to ensure that Begum Zia would not be allowed to lead the BNP in the next election” appears ridiculous. This is 2018! The election that followed the registration of the case was held at the end of 2008! The fact is that the military-backed regime had registered cases both against her and Sheikh Hasina and both had been jailed during its tenure. The cases against Sheikh Hasina were quashed after she came to power; those against Begum Zia were not.
Prima facie, this can suggest that the Awami League Government had let Sheikh Hasina off the hook but not Begum Zia. Not letting the latter off the hook, however, is not the same as hooking her. The question is whether the charges against both are genuine. The judgement in the Zia Orphanage Trust case suggests that they are so at least in one instance. BNP’s secretary-general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir has, doubtless, told the AFP, “This is a false and staged case. No way we will accept this verdict.” Begum Zia’s lawyer Khandkar Mahbub Hossain said that the verdict reflected “political vengeance” and would be overturned by a higher court.
What the BNP leaders said was expected. They could hardly have hailed the judgement. Here, the verdict of the High Court, where Begum Zia’s appeal would lie, would help to indicate whether her conviction was warranted and the sentence was proportionate to the gravity of the offence. It is sufficient to say here that offences like the one for which she has been sentenced, can attract a life term in Bangladesh. Besides, her son Tarique Rahman and four others, have received much stiffer terms — ten years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Taka 2.10 crore each. Explaining her lighter punishment, judge, Mohammad Akhteruzzaman, had said while passing her sentence, “She [Begum Zia] was given a shorter term considering her health and social status.”
Of course, a disproportionately high punishment could result from an error of judgement. BNP’s leaders, however, have spoken of political “vengeance”. The party’s senior leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, has described the sentence as “an attempt to eliminate the opponent”. “This verdict,” says Alamgir, “will deepen the country’s existing political crisis and will damage people’s faith in the judiciary.”
Alamgir ignores that Bangladesh’s population has become highly polarised, and the vast multitudes of Awami League supporters have welcomed the judgement. Even many occupants of the political middle ground would not rush to support Begum Zia given the question of morality involved. Few things can be more reprehensible than defalcating money meant for orphans. The BNP will, of course, deny the charge and may accuse the Awami League Government of pursuing the case with a disproportionate zeal. Such an extraordinary argument would overlook the fact that it is the duty of any prosecution to try its best to secure a conviction and the maximum possible punishment under law in any case it is fighting. If anything, the Awami League Government would have betrayed its Constitutional responsibility if it had not done its best to ensure that the rule of law prevailed even in a case involving a former Prime Minister, who could hold the office again.
The BNP may also be wrong in expecting Begum Zia’s arrest to trigger a wave of sympathy. The fact that her son Tarique Rahman’s is now running the party is likely to alienate a significant segment of people as he is not considered to be an epitome of virtue. There has even been speculation that this may split the party as many senior leaders may not be prepared to tolerate his abrasive ways. People also wonder whether the party, reeling under the knocks it took during the violent agitation it had mounted during 2014 and 2015 against the Awami League’s Government, would be able to sustain a long, aggressive movement for her release besides campaigning for the polls. The low-key and peaceful agitation the BNP is conducting has been interpreted as indicating that it no longer has the ability to unleash the kind of violence it did during 2014 and 2015.
The Awami League, however, needs to pull up its socks, particularly in the context of the several instances of question paper leak and the sad states of the Farmers Bank and the Janata Bank. Nor should it rest on its oars politically. Complacence has a way of recoiling.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)
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