08 February, Dhaka
A Bangladesh court on Thursday sentenced former Prime Minister and the country’s main opposition leader Khaleda Zia to five years in prison on corruption charges that she and her supporters described as a “politically motivated” attempt to keep her out of general elections.
Amid heightened security across Bangladesh, the special judge’s court convicted the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson of embezzling $252,000 in foreign donations for the Zia Orphanage Trust, bdnews24.com reported.
Zia appealed for calm in the country following the verdict and urged all to respect the law, said her lawyer Masud Ahmed.
“I will be back. Do not worry and be strong,” she told weeping relatives, according to the Daily Star newspaper.
Her lawyer Ahmed called the case against Zia a “political trial” and said the 632-page ruling was full of contradictions. “We will file an appeal against the verdict next week,” he said.
Traffic was thrown out of gear and shops closed as security forces took the 72-year-old politician to the old central jail in Dhaka after the verdict.
The court also sentenced Zia’s eldest son and BNP’s senior Vice-Chairman Tarique Rahman to 10 years in jail. A similar jail term was handed down to four of her aides.
Thousands of Zia’s supporters had gathered outside the court to hear the verdict amid a heavy deployment of security forces, who used teargas to disperse them.
BNP’s joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said the sentence was a “blueprint to destroy Begum Khaleda Zia,”adding that the “people of Bangladesh will reject this verdict.”
Zia, who headed the Bangladesh government twice (1991-1996 and 2001-2006), has repeatedly pleaded not-guilty and claimed she was a victim of “political witch hunt”, masterminded by rival and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Although she has been named in 13 cases of corruption, violence and sedition and has put under house arrest several times this is the first sentence against the BNP leader. The sentence means she is barred from parliamentary polls due this year.
“Since the court has been able to prove the charges against her and considering her social and physical status, Zia has been sentenced to five years in jail,” the judge said.
Earlier, there were clashes between security forces and opposition protesters who had defied security measures to escort the car taking Zia to court.
Several police officers were injured in the violence a few kilometres from the court, reports said.
The trial against Zia centred around the donation intended for an orphanage trust set up when she was Prime Minister. The charges against her had already led to her boycotting elections in 2014, which triggered widespread protests at that time.
Zia’s BNP said hundreds of its supporters were arrested in the run-up to the verdict, adding that it will hold protests on Friday against the conviction.