Sketching the Prison Life of Khaleda Zia,
Bangladesh’s Opposition Icon

Illustrations by Rebel Pepper

Wang Liming is a renowned political cartoonist who works under the pen name Rebel Pepper for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. His work focuses on political, cultural and societal developments across Asia.

Kamran Reza Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi correspondent for Benar, contributed reporting.

Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia has spent more than a year in prison after being convicted on corruption charges she claimed were politically motivated.

Authorities have barred the former three-time prime minister from giving interviews during her time at the Old Dhaka Central Jail. No photographs or other images of Zia, 73, have been published since she arrived there. She has since been occasionally hospitalized due to poor health.

Now, in sketches drawn for BenarNews and based on interviews with experts and officials from Zia’s BNP party and the ruling Awami League, illustrator Rebel Pepper recreates scenes from the opposition icon’s life inside prison.

Bangladeshi opposition icon Khaleda Zia is the lone inmate at the Old Dhaka Central Jail, which used to house thousands of prisoners. Her personal attendant, Fatema, sleeps in an adjacent room.

The two moved into the jail in February 2018. In 2016, authorities emptied the facility and transferred its inmates to a new prison.

Zia’s prison quarters are housed in a room on the first floor of the old jail’s administrative building.

Zia lives in a 10-feet by 8-feet room that used to house a jail official’s office.

As a prisoner with privileges, the former prime minister is allowed a table, at least two chairs, as well as a glass, plate, saucer, comb, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shampoo and other items, a former deputy inspector of prisons told BenarNews.

At a news conference in June 2018, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), alleged that Zia lived in jail amid filthy conditions.

“The Dhaka Central Jail is the worst. It houses such large rats. You’ll be surprised to know that a cat caught a mouse in the room where madam resides,” Alamgir told reporters.

Some opposition officials also claimed that her room was infested with bed bugs.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal denied that Zia’s prison room was dirty.

“The allegations are simply blatant lies. Khaleda Zia is a privileged prisoner. She has her own cot, bed, pillows, refrigerator, and other furniture inside the prison. So, how would there be bedbugs? The room is cleaned routinely,” Khan told BenarNews earlier this month.

“The BNP leaders have been doing politics over Khaleda Zia’s imprisonment. She is under the care of the jail authorities.”

As part of her daily routine, the ex-PM likes to eat fruit for breakfast and read the newspaper.

“She normally takes soup after waking up from bed,” Home Minister Khan said.

“She likes papaya juice and other fruits. She has been eating the foods we provide,” a jail official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.

Zia is allowed only one newspaper of her choice, and is restricted to watching state-run channels on the TV set in her cell.

The government has set up a special court inside the jail, not far from Zia’s cell, where she is summoned at times for hearings in other cases against her.

The courtroom is cramped, measuring 20 feet long by 12 feet wide.

Two female police guards escort Zia to the court whenever she goes there in her wheelchair, but she often refuses to appear at the sessions. When Zia does go, she wears clean and neatly pressed clothes. Her lawyers and BNP party leaders attend the sessions.

Khaleda Zia was admitted to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital in Dhaka for treatment on April 1, 2019.

“What the doctors have told us is that Khaleda Zia’s illnesses are not completely curable. She must live managing the health complications,” Home Minister Khan told BenarNews.

The former prime minister has arthritis and problems with her knees, he said.

“To keep her muscles active, we have appointed two physiotherapists for her care. Every day, they give her therapy,” Khan said.

“In addition, we have dedicated a female … doctor for her regular medical checkups. The doctor records her blood pressure, blood sugar and others every alternate day.”