Updated at 2:59 p.m. ET on 2018-02-08
Bangladesh police whisked opposition leader Khaleda Zia off to prison Thursday after a court convicted her of corruption and handed down a five-year jail term on charges that she had embezzled money meant for an orphanage.
As protests by thousands of her supporters broke out after the special court issued its verdict, with police firing tear gas in street clashes with demonstrators, Zia’s lawyers said she would promptly appeal the verdict.
“This is a pre-meditated verdict aimed at appeasing the government. We reject it. We are aggrieved. We will appeal against the judgment as soon as we get the certified copy of the verdict,” Mahbub Uddin Khokon, one of Zia’s lawyers, told BenarNews.
The conviction could prevent the 72-year-old former three-time prime minister from seeking the office again through the next general election, which is due at the end of this year or early 2019.
The special court also sentenced Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, who is in self-exile in London, and four others, to 10 years in prison each.
“As the prosecution has been able to prove the charges against Begum Khaleda Zia, [this court] hands her down, under section 409 and 109 of the Bangladesh Penal Code, five years imprisonment,” Judge Akhtaruzzaman told the court.
He said Zia was given a lighter prison term because the court had considered her “social status and age.”
As the judge finished reading the verdict and sentence for Zia, lawyers backed by the ruling party started chanting celebratory slogans.
Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a day earlier had accused the Awami League-led government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of bringing false allegations against her, saying the charges were part of a plot to keep her out of politics.
Legal experts had earlier said Zia could be sentenced to life in prison, if found guilty of embezzling 21 million takas (about U.S. $252,000) in foreign donations to an orphanage trust set up when she was last prime minister, from 2001 to 2006.
Zia was immediately taken to jail after her sentencing.
“Soon after the delivery of the judgment, the police encircled her inside the courtroom and took her to the jail through the backdoor of the court,” Khokon said. “She has been sheltered at the old jail at Nazimuddin Road.”
Law Minister Anisul Huq said the government had nothing to do with Zia’s conviction and sentencing.
“This verdict proves that nobody is above law,” he told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, BNP officials said in a statement that the party was calling on its supporters to gather for peaceful protests against the verdict in Dhaka and other districts of the country after Friday prayers and on Saturday.
“We have to be patient to restore our democratic rights,” the party’s secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told a news conference in Dhaka.
But things were far from peaceful on Thursday after the court issued its ruling. The day had started with the typically chaotic streets of Dhaka being mostly deserted and businesses being shut, after the government had deployed paramilitary units nationwide in anticipation of potential post-verdict violence.
Thousands of BNP supporters defied a daylong ban on political gatherings and clashed with police in at least four areas in Dhaka. Officers fired tear gas to disperse the crowd in two spots, witnesses said.
BNP activists burned tires to protest the police actions. Officers fired teargas canisters to disperse Zia’s supporters at the entrance of the court premises in Chankharpool.
At least four protesters were injured in Sylhet, in northeastern Bangladesh, while five police officers were injured and two motorcycles torched several kilometers from the court in Dhaka, according to reports.
Tensions between Zia’s supporters and activists from the Awami League party flared as her motorcade made its way to the courthouse. The motorcade left her residence in Gulshan, a high-end neighborhood of Dhaka, under tight security provided by her bodyguards and a police escort.
As Zia and her entourage approached Moghbazar, another district in the capital, thousands of her supporters began to block the road. Then, Awami activists started throwing brickbats at Zia’s car. A skirmish broke out between the two rival groups before police intervened to stop the fighting.
Elsewhere, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch urged Bangladeshi authorities to stop what it said were arbitrary arrests and detentions of BNP supporters and other activists, citing reports that more than 1,700 people had been arrested in the last eight days.
“The Bangladesh government is violating the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly by preventing opposition supporters from demonstrating,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director. “The government has a responsibility to prevent and minimize violence, but it needs to do so in a way that respects basic rights, not flouts them.”