Bangladesh’s main opposition party named the exiled son of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia as acting chief on Friday following the 72-year-old leader’s conviction and prison sentence in a graft case she called politically motivated.
Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, 53, was appointed leader after a Dhaka court sentenced her on Thursday to five years on charges that she embezzled 21 million takas (about U.S. $252,000) from an orphanage trust, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said.
Rahman, who fled to London in 2008, was convicted in absentia in the case that allegedly took place when Zia, the country’s three-time leader, was last prime minister, from 2001 to 2006. The court ordered him and four others to each serve 10 years in prison.
“According to the party charter, senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman will act as the chairperson of the BNP,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the party’s senior joint secretary, told reporters Friday.
Zia, who was whisked away to prison by police after her conviction, remained in jail in Dhaka as of noon Friday (local time), sources said.
Rahman’s appointment was announced as police scuffled with hundreds of activists (see video) who chanted slogans, carried signs and marched in Dhaka to protest Zia’s conviction, witnesses said.
The demonstrators peacefully dispersed after anti-riot police blocked them near the BNP offices, but at least three demonstrators were arrested on charges of “creating trouble,” a police spokesman told BenarNews.
Opposition leaders on Friday called for Zia’s immediate release, accusing the government of “dictating” the charges against her.
But Obaidul Quader, general secretary of the ruling Awami League, rejected the allegations.
“They made a person convicted of corruption as their chairman,” he told reporters Friday, referring to the BNP. “They are expected to [make the accusations against the government].”
Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the BNP’s highest policy-making committee, told BenarNews that Rahman’s appointment was in accordance with Zia’s instructions during a Feb. 7 meeting where she said that her son should replace her upon her conviction.
Ataur Rahman, a Dhaka University political science professor, said Zia’s imprisonment might create divisions within BNP’s rank and file.
“Khaleda Zia is in jail. Tarique Rahman lives in London. He is the acting chief of the BNP. Tarique Rahman is also convicted in the same case. It is very difficult to run a party without the physical presence of its chief,” he told BenarNews.
Apparently, he said, Zia’s conviction divided the BNP into two camps, one led by senior leaders who reject Rahman’s leadership and the other led by younger members who trust her son.
“Most of the senior leaders are unlikely to accept Tarique Rahman’s leadership. So, there is a possibility that the party’s unity would be threatened if Khaleda Zia remained behind bars for long,” he said.
With a fragmented BNP, the country’s opposition will face a tough hurdle during the next general election expected to take place in December or in January 2019, according to political analysts.
Maj. Hafiz Uddin Ahmed, who served as a minister in Zia’s cabinet, told BenarNews that BNP would follow the decision of the party’s standing committee.
UN, US call for calm in Bangladesh
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on both the ruling and the opposition parties to maintain calm in the aftermath of Zia’s imprisonment.
“We are just monitoring the latest developments regarding this verdict and we expect that we will say something more once we have evaluated the situation,” Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for Guterres, told reporters on Thursday.
“It is too early to judge what impact this will have (on elections),” he said. “But we do continue to call for an inclusive and democratic process in the country. We call on sides to maintain calm.”
U.S. officials also expressed concern over Zia’s conviction.
“We are aware of the conviction of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia, and encourage Bangladesh to guarantee of a fair trial,” a State Department spokesman said.
“We also call on members of society to act peacefully and responsibly,” he said. “We stress that all sides must eschew violence; violence hinders democratic processes.”