Khaleda gets 5 years in jail, faces poll bar

Khaleda Zia arrives at the court in Dhaka on Thursday. (AP)

Calcutta: A Dhaka court on Thursday sentenced three-time Bangaldesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to five years' imprisonment on corruption charges, a conviction that could debar her from contesting in the general election scheduled later this year unless a higher court stays the order.

Khaleda's son Tarique Rahman was jailed for 10 years in the same graft case.

As the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader was being taken to Old Central Jail in Dhaka on Thursday afternoon, legal strategists of the BNP began planning how to fast track an appeal in the high court. Her political aides are also chalking out a protest strategy.

Khaleda, her son and aides were convicted of stealing 21 million taka (Rs 1.6 crore) in foreign donations received by an orphanage trust set up when she was last Prime Minister, from 2001 to 2006, lawyers said. Khaleda started the trust in memory of her husband Zia-ur Rahman.

Political analysts believe the conviction could be a "game-changer" in the elections in which incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will seek a third term.

"The BNP has been in disarray, but the verdict can be a game-changer as it can give the cadres a rallying point that may yield rich dividends in the polls," a political analyst in Dhaka said.

"They had been anticipating this verdict and they must have a game plan on how to use it in their favour in the elections," he added.

Although Hasina has an impressive economic report card, she has to deal with anti-incumbency as Bangladesh had been electing her and Khaleda alternately till the January 2014 polls that the BNP boycotted after its demand for a caretaker government was turned down.

The BNP cannot afford to stay away from the polls this time. The fact that the elections are dictating the agenda became clear on Thursday as no hartal was called and BNP cadres steered clear of any major act of violence after the verdict. But later in the evening, some incidents of violence were reported.

Right now, political observers in Bangladesh are divided on whether Khaleda, 72, can lead the party in the election, as the law says anyone imprisoned for more than two years cannot run for office for the next five years.

Khaleda's lawyers will seek bail besides quashing of the lower court order, said a political analyst. According to the analyst, bail is a certainty.

"But it (the high court) may not suspend the order, which would come in the way of her participating in the polls. It may also give her conditional bail by restricting her political activities," he said.

BNP sources said the earliest they could file an appeal was on Sunday or Monday after receiving the certified copy of the 636-page order pronounced by Judge Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman.

The possibility of the absence of Khaleda from the political amphitheatre may be significant for the BNP as political parties in Bangladesh - except the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a religion-based political outfit - cannot survive without faces.

The BNP will face double trouble as Khaleda's son, the London-based Tarique, has been in absentia for over a decade.

"One cannot underestimate the (ruling) Awami League, as they may also be ready with their plans. The way the police dealt with the BNP supporters makes it clear that there are directions to the law-enforcers to avoid confrontation," said a diplomat based in Dhaka.

He said if the ruling party can use the administration effectively by keeping the protests under check and convince the people that the law took its own course by convicting a "corrupt former Prime Minister", the verdict could act to the advantage of the Awami League as well.

"There will be a serious leadership issue in the BNP in the absence of Khaleda.... If the Awami League can use the opportunity to go to town over Khaleda's corruption, they can minimise the impact of anti-incumbency," the diplomat said, adding that the verdict in another corruption case involving Khaleda was lined up later this month.

Even if the BNP tries to build a movement claiming that the government is harassing its leader to prevent her from contesting the polls, it can be argued that the cases date back to 2008, when a caretaker government was in power.


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