An attorney representing Bangladeshi opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia says the ruling party is harassing his client through a sedition charge brought against her by one of its supporters.
A court in Dhaka on Monday ordered that Zia, a former three-time premier who heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), appear for a hearing into the charge on March 3.
“As the government has approved the case, we think the government is behind the case. This move is for political harassment,” Zia’s lawyer, Khandker Mahbub Hossain, told BenarNews.
The charge stems from a public comment made by Zia last month in which she allegedly questioned the official number on how many people died in Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.
“There was controversy over the number of the martyrs killed in the war of liberation; different books and documents refer to various figures,” Zia was quoted as saying on Dec. 21.
According to Bangladesh’s constitution, 3 million people were killed by Pakistani forces and their local collaborators during the conflict 45 years ago when Bangladesh was then known as the province of East Pakistan.
“The case has no merit of sedition as suggested by the Bangladesh code of criminal procedure. The procedure stipulates that anyone trying to overthrow the government or conspire to overthrow the government through rumor or propaganda and hatred will face a sedition charge. But her comment had no such ingredients,” Hossain said.
BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir echoed the lawyer’s criticism, saying the case was being used by the ruling Awami League to sideline Zia. The BNP has no seats in the current parliament after the party boycotted the 2014 general election, claiming that the ruling Awami League (AL) was out to rig the vote.
“The government has filed at least four cases against Khaleda Zia; now they file another sedition case …. They fear Khaleda Zia’s presence in politics. So, they want to eliminate her from politics through filing such sedition cases,” Alamgir told reporters at the BNP offices in Dhaka on Monday.
Government claims no role in complaint
However, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal on Sunday denied the allegation that the government had played a role in bringing the sedition charge against Zia, telling local media that the case against her was a purely legal issue.
The sedition charge was brought against the former PM by plaintiff Mamtaj Uddin Mehdi, a Supreme Court lawyer and Awami League member.
He filed suit against her on grounds of sedition for, in his words, “violating the constitution and humiliating the martyrs” by questioning the accuracy of the official wartime death toll.
The constitution was the highest law of the land and people who violated the charter must face sedition charges, Mehdi told reporters.
According to observers, the new case against Zia exposes the poisonous nature of Bangladeshi politics.
“Basically, the problem lies with the two parties’ intolerant attitude toward each other; the Awami League cannot tolerate the BNP’s existence and vice versa,” Nizam Uddin Ahmed, a political commentator and professor at Chittagong University, told BenarNews.
“The Awami League led the country’s bloody war of independence; so any controversial comment against the liberation war would anger the ruling party,” he said.
Either way, Zia’s comment questioning the number of people killed during the war will not go down well with the public, Ahmed suggested.
Ahmed Tareq, a political science student at Rajshahi University, agreed.
“Khaleda Zia should not have made such comment on a sensitive issue like our war of independence,” he told BenarNews.
But, he added, “Similarly, filing a sedition case against Khaleda Zia can be counter-productive for the Awami League.”