By Mutasim Billah
DHAKA, Bangladesh (AA) - Political analysts in Bangladesh said a court ruling against an opposition leader was politically motivated and meant to exclude her party from the next parliamentary election.
On Thursday a court in the capital Dhaka sentenced former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, now head of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to five years in prison for corruption.
The case against Zia involves the embezzlement of $252,000 of foreign funds meant for a charity created by Zia in 1991.
Abdul Latif Masum, a political analyst from Jahangirnagar University, called the process a “political conspiracy” from the highest level of the government meant to push the BNP, Bangladesh's main opposition as well as most popular party, out of the next general elections at the end of this year.
He noted that if the BNP doesn’t take part in the election it would be a "one-party election" and would not get national and international recognition.
"An election could be impossible as we expect more arrests and protests in the country in the coming months," he said, adding that the government plans to hold an election like the one held in 2014, which was boycotted by almost all the opposition parties.
Masum claimed that the trial was “fake” and the verdict was issued “without any evidence.”
He argued the ruling was “the beginning of the end of the regime” and could spur a “popular revolution” against the "torture and oppression" of the government.
- 'Nobody is above the law'
While the BNP said the decision was politically motivated, the ruling Awami League called it a victory of the judicial system, stressing that nobody is above the law.
“There was a culture of indemnity in Bangladesh, and by delivering this verdict the country once again proves that the rule of law applies to everyone,” SM Rezaul Karim, law affairs secretary of the ruling Awami League, told Anadolu Agency.
“The verdict shows that there is no way to evade justice and legal proceedings, and punishment for crimes is a must,” he added.
He said the ruling party saw the verdict as “a breakthrough” and “exemplary experience in the country’s judicial history.”
- 'Political decision'
But the BNP itself calls the decision an effort to exclude the party from the next election.
“It is a political decision, not a judicial one. The verdict aims to take BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia and the nationalist party out of the next election process,” Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, a standing committee member of the BNP, told Anadolu Agency.
He said the accusations against Zia were “baseless and politically motivated.”
“The BNP obeyed the judicial procedure during the trail because the party believes in the rule of law and democracy,” said Chowdhury.
“On the other hand, the ruling Awami League believes in autocracy and is trying to control legal institutions as they did in the past.”
- Imprisonment could boost Zia's popularity
Afsan Chowdhury, a veteran journalist and researcher in Bangladesh, called the ruling a big blow to the BNP.
“If the BNP is kept out of the elections, the ruling party will fully benefit from it,” he added.
He argued that if the opposition leader is kept out of the election, this would boost her popularity across the country.
“Public sympathy for her will increase,” he said.
Chowdhury added: “When charges are brought against the head of a major political party, then the case may become a political case. No other issues are at play there.”
Though the government highlighted the rule of law and corruption in the Zia trial, it seems that the public does not believe them, according to Chowdhury.
“Because there were thousands of corruption incidents across the country, but the government took no action,” he added.
- BNP to appeal verdict
Zia’s lawyer Khandker Mahbub Hossain told reporters on Wednesday that they would appeal the conviction to a higher court. He added that he hopes during the appeals process, Zia would be out on bail.
If the court upholds the verdict, Zia will unable to run later as under Bangladesh’s Constitution, a person cannot run in national polls if he or she was sentenced to two or more years in jail.
But if the higher court reconsiders the ruling and frees her, or gives her a jail term of less than two years, she can still run. She can also do so if an appeal is pending.
*Sorwar Alam from Ankara and Najmus Sakib Rafsan from Dhaka contributed to the story