Bangladesh Opposition Party Plans Hunger Strike as Leader Zia’s Condition Worsens

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Dhaka
2021-11-18
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Bangladesh Opposition Party Plans Hunger Strike as Leader Zia’s Condition Worsens Bangladesh Nationalist Party members and health workers help former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (in pink) into a car outside her home in Dhaka to travel to a hospital for treatment, Oct. 12, 2021.
BenarNews

Bangladesh’s leading opposition party announced Thursday that it would stage a massive one-day hunger strike this weekend to demand the government allow ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who her supporters say is gravely ill, to travel abroad for advanced medical care.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party leaders announced the planned action for Nov. 20 a day after Sheikh Hasina, the nation’s current prime minister and Zia’s bitter foe, said her government had done enough for the BNP chairwoman because Zia had been released from prison to allow for treatment at her home. Zia was convicted of embezzlement in 2018.

“On Saturday, we, all the party leaders and activists, will stage a mass hunger strike at the party office in Dhaka. Similar programs will be observed across the country,” Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP secretary-general, told BenarNews on Thursday. “We will see the response and decide whether we will be extending the mass hunger strike.

BNP officials said this would be the first hunger strike in support of Zia seeking medical care outside of Bangladesh – a plea that Hasina’s government has consistently rejected. Zia, 76, is the first woman to serve as PM in the South Asian nation, and held that office three times while Hasina has led the Bangladesh since 2009. 

“A three-time prime minister and country leader, Khaleda Zia, has been involved in a life-and-death struggle – she needs better treatment abroad, this is her right. We demand that the government immediately allow her to go abroad for treatment,” Alamgir said.

G.M. Siraj, one of seven BNP members who serve in parliament, initiated an unscheduled discussion with other MPs about Zia.

“I told MPs that our leader Khaleda Zia’s condition has been worsening. Her condition is not good,” he told BenarNews. “If anything, serious happens to her, the Awami League will be held responsible for it.

“If the government does not allow her to go abroad, we may be forced to resign from parliament. Subjected to a party decision, I will be the first MP to step down in protest of the government attitude towards the ailing Khaleda Zia,” he said.

Law Minister Anisul Huq, who responded to Siraj’s speech during the parliament session, said the government would not allow Zia to leave the country.

“This is not possible for the government to allow a convicted person to go abroad, it is against our laws. I have told it in parliament today,” Huq told BenarNews.

He said the ruling Awami League government was “sympathetic” to Zia and had suspended her conviction so that she could be treated from her home instead of from prison.

“We are least bothered by what the BNP leaders say about it,” said Huq.

Hasina’s government denies that Zia is under house arrest. In July, the foreign ministry summoned the British high commissioner to complain about a U.K. human rights report that described Zia’s status at home as a house arrest and convey the message that her status had been misinterpreted, according to a report in The Independent.

A housewife-turned politician and widow of President Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1981, Zia became BNP leader in the mid-1980s and was first elected PM in 1991.

In 2007, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) under a military-backed caretaker government filed the Zia Orphanage Trust Corruption case and the Zia Charitable Trust Corruption case against her and associates. The cases alleged that Zia as the head of the two trusts was responsible for embezzlement of funds coming from abroad.

On Feb. 8, 2018, a special court convicted Zia in the orphanage case and sentenced her to seven years effective immediately. The ACC appealed the verdict and the high court increased her sentence to 10 years. She was convicted in October of that year in the charitable case and sentenced to seven more years.

Zia faces additional charges of corruption, defamation and other criminal offenses, according to BNP members who said the charges were “politically motivated” and blamed Hasina’s Awami League.

Health concerns

Zia carried out her sentence as the only inmate at the abandoned Old Dhaka Central Jail. As her medical condition worsened, family members asked Hasina’s government for her release.

On March 25, 2020, the government suspended Zia’s sentence and released her for six months on the condition that she take treatment at a Bangladesh hospital and not be involved in politics.

Since then, the government has extended the suspension every six months – the most recent in September.

On April 17, Zia was admitted to Dhaka’s Evercare Hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent nearly two months undergoing treatment.

In mid-October, Zia was admitted to the hospital for health complications. She returned home on Nov. 7 and was readmitted on Nov. 13.

“We are strictly told not to say anything about her health problems. This is her personal issue,” Zia’s chief physician, Dr. Zahid Hossain, told BenarNews on Thursday night.

Md. Shamsul Alam, a professor at Jahangirnagar University whose area of expertise is the nation’s political parties, said the BNP weekend plan was necessary.

“The government had established total control on politics. Given the situation, the BNP and allies cannot go for any big political action programs other than hunger strikes and protest rallies,” he told BenarNews.

He also said there is a reason why Hasina’s party wants Zia to stay in Bangladesh.

“Actually, the ruling party fears that Khaleda Zia may herself could engage in political activities from abroad if they allow her out. They do not want to lose control over politics,” he said. “Still, the Awami League would make political gains if they allow Zia to go abroad as she has been seriously sick.”

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