Plunging Bangladesh into turmoil, a Dhaka special court Thursday sentenced Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to five years rigorous imprisonment for corruption. The 72-year-old, who was taken to jail immediately, may be disqualified from contesting elections due in December this year.
The sentencing of Zia was met by stony silence in Delhi which believes that despite the possibility of even greater expansion of power by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, she remains the best bet to rule Bangladesh.
Reports from Bangladesh say Zia’s party BNP is planning a nationwide protest Friday. Her party secretary general Fakhrul Islam Alamgir called the court verdict “completely politically motivated”. Zia will be in jail for at least three days before bail can be posted.
But in comments that speak of the intense rivalry between the country’s two most powerful women, Prime Minister Hasina said of her chief opponent: “Where is she now?” She criticised Zia and her party for instigating violence from 2013 to 2015.
“The Throne of the Almighty Allah gets shaken when one carries out repression on people. Those who burnt people to death face such consequences. And that justice is being done,” Hasina told a rally in Dhaka.
The question is whether Zia’s five-year incarceration disallows her from contesting the generalelections that will take place in December. If the BNP boycotts the polls, like it did five years ago in 2013, then Hasina and her Awami League will rule without the spectre of a real Opposition — to the disappointment of Delhi.
In recent months, a watchful establishment in Delhi, mindful of the strains and pressures from radical Islamists as well as the temptation of financial assistance offered to Dhaka by a rapidly influential China, has made it clear that it will support Hasina’s democratic Awami League.
But it has also gently urged Hasina to allow “visible minimum participation” by the Opposition BNP, with whom she has been at daggers drawn for several years. Delhi’s argument has been that an Awami League government in power will be better able to deal with democratic dissent inside the system than outside it.
It is an argument that Hasina may not have been totally averse to, even as she has exponentially expanded her influence during the last four years of her prime ministership — muzzling the media, expanding the ambit of security forces in civilian spaces, and welcoming the Chinese into Bangladesh.
Delhi has been particularly watchful of China’s rapidly expanding influence in Bangladesh, since the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015, when he cut a cheque of $26 billion and handed it over to Sheikh Hasina.
Since then, the Bangladeshis have bought two submarines from China and also allowed Chinese companies to build some infrastructure around the Chittagong port.
On its part, Delhi has made it a point to reach out to the BNP. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj met Zia in Dhaka in October 2017, even though a section of the Awami League said that she should not meet her.
Zia’s conviction in the Zia Orphanage Trust case, in which her son Tarique Rahman has also been sentenced to ten years on charges of embezzling $252,000 (or 21 million taka) certainly paves the way for consolidation of power by Hasina. She and the Awami League believe that the mother and son have got their due from anti-corruption courts, which asked why the Trust had been set up just before foreign donations started pouring in.