The Bangladeshi government announced on Tuesday that it was suspending the prison sentence of ailing opposition leader Khaleda Zia for six months on humanitarian grounds and allowing her to get medical treatment at home.
Law Minister Anisul Huq told reporters that Zia, a three-time former prime minister and first woman to hold the office in Bangladesh, would not be allowed to leave the country in search of medical care, as her party and family had requested.
“Considering her age and humanitarian grounds, the government has kindly decided to suspend the sentence of Begum Khaleda Zia,” Huq said.
Zia, 74, has been in jail since Feb. 8, 2018 after a Dhaka court convicted her of corruption and handed down a five-year jail term on charges that she had embezzled money meant for an orphanage. Months later, she was convicted in another corruption case.
She had repeatedly accused the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her bitter foe, of bringing false allegations against her, saying the charges were part of a plot to keep her out of politics.
The government’s decision came after Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary-general of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), sought Hasina’s intervention for her rival’s release from prison.
“We welcome the decision of the government to release Khaleda Zia,” Barrister Muhammad Jamiruddin Sircar, a member of the BNP’s policy-making standing committee, told BenarNews.
Huq did not say when Zia’s release would take place, but home ministry officials told BenarNews it could happen “anytime soon.”
“Her release is under process. She will be [temporarily] released after the completion of the formalities,” Sharif Mahmud Apu, an information officer with the home ministry, told BenarNews.
As part of the process, Apu said, the Prime Minister’s Office would send the documents on Zia’s release back to the Home Ministry, before those papers are sent to the jail authorities.
Since April 2019, Zia has been serving out her sentence while confined as a patient at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) Hospital. The state-run hospital is named after Hasina’s late father, the founder of Bangladesh. Zia spent her first 14 months in prison as the lone inmate of the old Dhaka Central Jail.
The government set some conditions for Zia’s 6-month temporary freedom, the law minister said.
“She will have to take treatment at her residence,” he said. “She cannot go abroad.”
The opposition leader has been ordered to serve 17 years in prison for the two corruption cases. Her convictions prevented her from seeking office again.
While in custody, Zia’s health has deteriorated, her political supporters said. Zia’s rheumatoid arthritis has grown increasingly serious, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a recently leaked medical report on her health.
Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP’s senior joint secretary-general, also welcomed the announcement, describing it as a positive development.
“Good sense prevailed on the government, as the cases for which she was sentenced had no basis,” Rizvi told reporters. “This release will contribute to easing the suffocating political condition in Bangladesh.”
But Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP secretary-general, expressed skepticism.
“How will she get proper treatment if she is not allowed to go abroad?” Alamgir told reporters.
He said the BNP leaders would hold an urgent meeting to examine the conditions of the release.
Tareque Shamsur Rehman, a political science professor at Jahangirnagar University, said Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League, would gain from the opposition leader’s release.
“People will hail Sheikh Hasina for the decision to release her arch political rival,” he said. “This is because Bangladeshi people have always been in favor of the oppressed.”