Updated at 2:18 p.m. ET on 2020-03-25
Bangladeshi opposition leader Khaleda Zia returned to her Dhaka home on Wednesday after authorities granted the ailing 74-year-old former prime minister a six-month reprieve from her prison sentence.
A large crowd of supporters jostled to get close to Zia, who wore a pink saree and protective mask as she was wheeled to a car that whisked her away from the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital, where she had been confined while receiving treatment since last April.
Her brother, Shamim Iskander, drove the car as her sister, Selima Islam, assisted the former three-time prime minister, who was the first woman to hold that office in Bangladesh.
“We thank the government for releasing my sister,” Selima Islam told BenarNews.
“Our aim was to save her. Regardless of the political situation, we have to help her survive. That’s why we have arranged her release by applying to the government.”
Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), did not say anything before she got into the car, as party leaders and activists surrounded her vehicle outside the hospital. She had spent nearly the last year as a patient at the state-run hospital, after starting her 17-year sentence on a corruption conviction as the lone inmate at the Old Dhaka Central Jail.
“Her physical condition is very bad. Today, I noticed that she was struggling with a breathing problem, that’s why she was not able to talk to anyone,” Selima Islam said.
'She's very sick'
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP’s secretary-general, spoke to reporters outside of Zia’s house in the Gulshan section of Dhaka after she returned home from the hospital.
“We will continue her treatment at her residence and hopefully she will come around,” he said, adding, “her medical team members will see her and decide where and how she should take treatment.”
Based on advice from Zia’s doctors, she will be quarantined at her home for the next few days, Alamgir said after he and members of BNP’s standing committee visited Zia at her residence.
“We just met madam [Zia]. She’s very sick. Physicians visited her and discussed ways of ensuring her treatment. They advised us to keep her in quarantine for some days so that no-one can meet her now,” he told reporters without divulging more information about Zia’s health.
He relayed information that, during the meeting, Zia urged fellow Bangladeshis as well as leaders and supporters of her party to remain alert and take measures to guard against infections from the novel coronavirus.
Under terms of her six-month release, Zia can travel from her house for medical treatment but cannot leave the country. BNP officials had asked that she be allowed to travel outside of Bangladesh to receive specialized treatment.
Zia had been in prison since Feb. 8, 2018, when a Dhaka court convicted her and sentenced her to a five-year term on charges that she had embezzled money meant for an orphanage. Months later, she was convicted in another corruption case.
Zia will not be allowed to participate in political activities, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said.
“The government has not cancelled her conviction. The government has just suspended the conviction for six months,” he told BenarNews, adding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had decided to release her bitter rival on humanitarian grounds.
Shafique Ahmed, a former law minister and member of the ruling Awami League party, praised Hasina for her executive order to grant Zia’s temporary release.
“The prime minister has shown a rare example of humanity and political accommodation, I would say,” he told BenarNews.
“If Zia violates the terms and conditions, the government can jail her again at any time,” he said.
Tareque Shamsur Rehman, a political science professor at Jahangirnagar University, tied Zia’s release to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has gripped Bangladesh and countries across the globe.
“The government has made a very good decision by releasing Khaleda Zia at this time, considering the critical national and global crisis over the coronavirus pandemic,” he told BenarNews, adding, “now, the government needs political support of a big political party like the BNP.”
“The BNP should work closely with the government to face the coronavirus crisis in Bangladesh without blaming the government for their alleged failure to contain the [virus],” he said.