Former Bangladesh PM Khaleda Zia gets 5 years in jail in corruption case
Dhaka, Feb. 8 (AP): Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was on Thursday sentenced to five years in prison on corruption charges by a court here.
The conviction means that Zia, head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and long-time rival to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, will be barred from running in the next national elections scheduled for December.
Judge Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman announced the verdict in a courtroom in Dhaka's Old City in Zia's presence. She was convicted of embezzling $248,154 in donations meant for an orphanage trust established when she was prime minister from 2001-2006.
The judge also sentenced Zia's son, Tarique Rahman, and four others to 10 years in prison for their involvement in the crime.
Law Minister Anisul Huq said Zia would be imprisoned later Thursday.
Bangladesh law says anyone imprisoned for more than two years cannot run for office for the next five years, but Huq noted that the final decision rests with the courts.
"It's up to the appeals court to decide whether she will be eligible to run," he said after the verdict.
Ruhul Kabir Rizbi, a close Zia aide, rejected the verdict, saying the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was looking for a way to weaken Zia politically.
Security forces were on high alert ahead of the verdict, fearing clashes with Zia’s supporters.
Thousands of police and other security forces were patrolling the main cities and towns. In the capital Dhaka alone, about 10,000 police and paramilitary border force were out on the streets manning checkpoints. Traffic was light on usually clogged roads.
Earlier, as Zia began her journey toward the court in Dhaka's old city from her residence in Gulshan diplomatic zone, thousands of her supporters poured onto the streets and surrounded her motorcade. They chanted anti-government slogans and moved on by cordoning off the motorcade as it slowly progressed.
Thousands of supporters of the ruling Awami League party also took to the streets to show their support to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Zia's archrival.
The opposition has accused the government of arresting hundreds of supporters ahead of the verdict.
The leading Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo reported Thursday that some 1,200 leaders and activists have been arrested since Wednesday. Authorities have warned of tougher measures against any attempts of violence.
Zia's son, Rahman, a senior party leader and an heir-apparent in the country's dynastic politics, lives in London as he also faces several other cases. He is being tried in absentia along with two others. Two defendants are behind bars.
Zia faces more than 30 other cases on charges ranging from corruption to sedition.
Hasina and Zia having ruled the country alternately since 1991, when democracy was restored. In the last election in 2014, Zia's party and other partners boycotted the race, making way for Hasina to return to power with a landslide victory.