A Bangladesh court on Tuesday doubled a prison sentence being served by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to 10 years, as a senior government official said that her legal troubles may prevent her from participating in upcoming polls.
In an unusual move, a High Court bench rejected Zia’s motion to dismiss the case and instead embraced a petition from the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission seeking to increase her punishment, lawyers said.
A lawyer for the ailing 73-year-old said she would appeal the sentence to the Appellate Division of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court. “If the court suspends her punishment, then there will be no barrier to participate in elections for her,” Zainul Abedin told BenarNews.
But Bangladesh Attorney General Mahbubey Alam gave a different opinion.
“Even if the Appellate Division suspends her punishment, she will not qualify to participate in elections, because temporary suspension of punishment doesn’t mean she is innocent, rather she will be considered convicted until acquitted by the court. She will be able to participate in elections only if the court cancels her punishment,” Alam told BenarNews.
The three-time former prime minister has been in prison since February, when a court convicted her on charges she had embezzled money meant for an orphanage. On Monday, her time in prison was extended by two years because of a conviction in a separate corruption case.
Supporters have protested, claiming the verdicts are orchestrated to remove Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s chief rival from the political arena. Zia’s son and heir-apparent, Tarique Rahman, also has been convicted of corruption and lives in self-exile in London.
Bangladesh’s Election Commission is due to announce the date of the next general election on Sunday, according to officials. Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies did not participate in 2014 elections, saying the contest would not be free and fair.
As a result, Bangladesh’s parliament has a friendly 34-member “opposition” bloc whose leader is an adviser to Hasina, and 250 seats representing the ruling Awami League and its allies. The remaining 16 elected seats are held by independent MPs.
The BNP has not announced whether it will participate in the next election, but has joined forces with a new coalition headed by 81-year-old lawyer and politician Kamal Hossain who says his National Unity Front is not a political party but a movement to ensure free and fair elections.
Hasina, who rejected repeated demands for a dialogue with the BNP, on Tuesday invited leaders of the new opposition coalition to her official residence for that purpose on Thursday evening.
“The prime minister invited them at Gono Bhaban at 7 p.m. on Thursday,” Awami League Office Secretary Abdus Sobhan Golap told reporters, after handing the invitation to Hossain.
The move appeared to be a change of strategy by the prime minister who had earlier accused Hossain, a longtime ally of her father, of shaking hands with “killers and corrupt” politicians in the BNP.
The NUF has issued a list of demands, including that a neutral caretaker administration run the country during the electoral period, the army be deployed to safeguard the polls and Zia be freed from prison.
Political observers welcomed the move toward dialogue, saying it was likely to reduce political tensions.
“The PM knows that the main opposite party BNP is also a part of the NUF, their leaders will also be in the dialogue, and they will raise their issues there. The PM invited them by keeping all these things in mind. It is a positive move,” said Syed Abul Maksud, a prominent human rights activist and writer.
Political analyst and historian Mohiuddin Ahmed told BenarNews, “We should not expect that AL will accept all NUF demands, but if they agree with some points and move toward an acceptable election, then that will be good for all.”
Commenting on the upcoming meeting, Awami league Secretary General Obaidul Quader told reporters, “We will discuss with open minds there.”