Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Behind bars: Khaleda Zia passes one year as a lone prisoner 

  • Sumon Mahmud, chief political correspondent, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2019-02-08 13:51:58 BdST

bdnews24

BNP leaders thought Khaleda Zia would get out on bail after she was sentenced to prison for graft involving the Zia Orphanage Trust.

It never happened. Instead they saw another graft verdict being announced against the former prime minister. The BNP chief was shown arrested in further cases and had stayed behind bars during the general election last year.

Khaleda has been serving her sentence in a jailhouse at Najimuddin Road, which once housed the Dhaka Central Jail. The 73-year-old politician had been its only prisoner for a year.

It was “beyond imagination” that the head of the BNP would be behind bars for this long, remarked Moudud Ahmed, former law minister and the party’s standing committee member.

“We never imagined that the most popular leader in Bangladesh, who was elected prime minister three times, will be punished in a baseless case,” he told a programme on Thursday.

“She has appealed against the verdict that ordered her to serve five years in prison, and therefore she cannot be kept in jail more than seven days after the filing.” 

In politics for 36 years, it is not Khaleda’s first time in prison. During the 2007 emergency rule started by a military backed caretaker government, the BNP chief spent one year and seven days in a sub-jail set up in a house in the national parliament complex.

The difference now is that she has been convicted of graft. The case for graft in the Zia Orphanage Trust is one of the cases started against her during emergency rule.

On Feb 8 of 2017, she was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling Tk 20 million meant for orphans during her last term as prime minister.

Khaleda was taken to the old jailhouse on the same day Dhaka Judge Md Akhtaruzzaman announced the verdict. BNP leaders, from the very beginning, had been opposing the move to lock her up in that location.

But the government claimed there were good arrangements for Khaleda in the old building, citing an unprecedented privilege it granted so that Khaleda’s maid Fatema Begum can serve her in jail.

After a few months, Khaleda secured bail in the graft case. But the authorities kept her in prison, showing her as a suspect arrested in a several other cases. BNP leaders have been calling the move a ‘conspiracy’ to keep her locked up in prison. 

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia was taken to BSMMU from prison for medical tests. She walked from the car to the elevator by herself. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

In October, the verdict of her other graft trial involving the Zia Charity Trust was announced, in which she was handed seven years in jail by Judge Akhtaruzzaman.

Within one day of the Charity verdict, the High Court gave its verdict in the appeal over the verdict for Zia Orphanage Trust Graft. 

The High Court disagreed with Judge Akhtaruzzaman who gave Khaleda a short sentence considering her age and status. The High Court doubled her sentence to ten years. 

“It is rational that she be given the highest punishment for sake of justice, so that a person thinks twice before committing such a crime while holding the top office.”

Khaleda’s time in jail has been marked by many incidents that made headlines. Khaleda refused to get treatment at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital (BSMMU) but later conceded and got admitted to the state-run hospital.

She went to BSMMU twice, once in April for medical tests, and stayed there from Oct 6 to Nov 8. Khaleda was then shifted back to jail. She appeared in a wheelchair while attending hearings for other cases in a makeshift courtroom at the jailhouse.

Khaleda may have bad health but she is mentally strong, said her lawyer Moudud Ahmed. Khaleda, who is known for having arthritis, can barely walk after a year in prison, he said.

“I met her this week. Her health is weak but her willpower is strong. She can barely walk. She has been using the wheelchair.”

‘HAUNTING TIMES’

Khaleda has been visited by her family members and party leaders. She is being imprisoned in the haunted surroundings of the British-era prison house, they said.

“She has not been well in prison. She is sick and spends time by reading books and magazines. She regularly recites from the Holy Quran. It is mostly the painful ailments that she is fighting with,” a relative told bdnews24.com.  

Khaleda remains quiet most of the times, according to jail officials. If her jailors ask her if she needs anything, she usually says she will let them know “if necessary”.

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia wipes away tears while being taken for tests at BSMMU’s Anatomy Department. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia wipes away tears while being taken for tests at BSMMU’s Anatomy Department. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

Her meals are cooked in jail as home foods are not allowed inside prison. The jail authorities allowed her to have home-cooked meals on the two Eid days, only after doing tests.

At first, the jail superintendent’s room was renovated to keep Khaleda. From that ‘special jail’, she was moved to the second storey and kept in a room that used to be the prison’s day-care centre.

That room too is damp and run down, said BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam.

“There are big mice here, along with the many cats that chase them. You’d be surprised if you found out that cats have been catching big mice in madam’s room,” he said last year.  

THE OLD LIFE

Khaleda Zia joined politics in 1983 after her husband President Ziaur Rahman was killed in a failed coup. She has been imprisoned in 1983, 1984 and 1987 – three times during the movement to oust military dictator Gen HM Ershad from power. 

But those were house arrests that confined the BNP chief to her old house at Shahid Moinul Road in Dhaka Cantonment. Then after a gap of 20 years, she was jailed in the parliament complex house.

This is the first time Khaleda’s is being kept in a jailhouse.

Khaleda has 34 more cases levelled against her, said her legal team. Among them, trial is undergoing for graft and abuse of power in cases involving NICO, GATCO and the Barapukuria Coal Mine.

The other cases include sedition and other criminal charges—including manslaughter by arson on vehicles, violence, sabotage, derogatory remark about Liberation War martyrs and even fake birthday celebration.

At least 26 cases are filed in Dhaka while three are recorded in Cumilla. There are two more in Panchagarh and Narail.

Khaleda’s house in Gulshan ‘Feroza’ is vacant and guarded by security now that she is in prison. The house premises seemed same as before with the garden in same condition. Khaleda’s younger brother Shamim Eskandar and his wife Kaniz Fatema takes care of the house.

The letters addressed to Khaleda coming to her Gulshan office are never opened, said the BNP leaders. These are mostly greeting cards from the ambassadors and high commissioners in foreign embassies in Dhaka. Also, local level BNP leaders and activists write to her.

More than 900 letters have arrived for Khaleda over the past year, said officials in the BNP chairperson’s office.

BNP leaders who had been talking about continuing the legal battle to free Khaleda are now feeling despondent. The leaders of the party that failed to topple the Awami League from power despite several attempts at street agitations still believe a movement is the only way to free her. 

“We need to start a movement because it cannot be achieved through the courts,” said Moudud.