For the first time possibly in independent Bangladesh, a judgement is about to be passed that will have an impact to last for a long time to come. The concept of a people’s tribunal for the accountability and trial of politicians is well known, but it is also undeniable that crimes are also accountable in the court of law. The main accused in this particular case is Khaleda Zia, chairperson of one of the major political parties of the country, prime minister for 10 years and one of the two leaders around whom Bangladesh’s politics have revolved in over half the life of Bangladesh as an independent nation. This case has heated up the political arena. Ironically, the heat is being generated by the ruling Awami League and its affiliates, more than the opposition.
Previously the head of another political party who had usurped power, had been tried and for corruption, and he had been convicted too. However, the trial and conviction of former military ruler and corrupt politician Ershad did not create significant political agitation. The punishment of this former military ruler who took over power forcefully at gunpoint, is hardly adequate in proportion to his abuse of power and misuse of funds. It is unlikely that justice will be done in his lifetime. In fact, he is taking full advantage of the main two political parties’ faltering confidence in democracy, even managing to evade conviction for murder.
Ershad and his party have no dearth of enthusiasm in drumming up political agitation over the 8 February verdict in the case against Khaleda Zia. One of his associates, state minister Mashiur Rahman, declared even before the date of the verdict was announced, that Khaleda would soon be behind bars. Ershad himself said, addressing Khaleda Zia, “You sent me to jail and now you will soon be in jail yourself.”
Jatiya Party, an ally of the government, may be quite enthusiastic about this judgement, but their excitement is nothing compared to the glee of other ministers and the leaders and activists of the ruling Awami League. Housing minister Mosharraf Hossain has called upon the party leaders and workers to take control of the streets a day before the verdict, that is, on 7 February. The capital city’s walls are covered with posters demanding highest punishment of Khaleda Zia for “stealing orphans’ funds”. The words of the posters and the ministers have already convicted Khaleda Zia, even before the judgement.
BNP has not held back. The party leaders have called upon their leaders and activists to take to the streets on 8 February. When Khaleda Zia travels to the special court and back, she is followed by hundreds of leaders and activists in a display of political strength. Awami League supporters did the same when Sheikh Hasina was on trial at the special court in the parliament area. Khaleda Zia’s supporters want to prove that despite the arrests, cases and harassment, their party remains strong and their leader is not alone. The prevailing tensions increased when BNP workers clashed with the police last week. BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul denied that the party people attacked the police, though his colleague Rizvi said the opposite. The fact remains that this does not bode well for the party. Its national committee meeting was also obstructed. Such obstructions ignite further agitation.
Bangladesh top political leaders have bitter and difficult experience when it comes to their trials. One can recall the predicament of those tried for crimes against humanity committed during the war of independence. Saydee’s trial alone created mayhem in which lives were lost and property destroyed. It is natural and expected that the law enforcement be prepared to prevent any such untoward incidents. But here there is clear indication of political motives.
There are over three dozen cases against Khaleda Zia. Ten of these are corruption cases and the others involve instigation of murder and sabotage. Ironically, the Zia Orphanage Trust case involves the lowest sum of money. It is important to look into why this case has been given priority over cases involving much higher amounts of money. There are posters demanding justice for stealing orphans’ funds. This will go down well in pre-election politics.
It is up to the court to decide on whether the verdict will be guilty or not guilty. It is not the business of the media to go into the truth behind the accusations or the reliability of the evidence. I am avoiding such matters scrupulously and looking into the political debate of the matter.
Several leading lawyers supporting Khaleda Zia have presented arguments in her favour in court. Khaleda Zia herself gave a lengthy statement over a stretch of a few days. Much of it was political. She said that the army-backed caretaker government (2007-08) had brought about many cases against the two former prime ministers to implement their ‘minus-two’ formula against them. She said that the cases against Sheikh Hasina had been ‘magically’ dispelled. Yet the cases against her were being hurriedly tried with political motives. Diplomats have been given the same picture of double standards as she highlighted in court.
In defending herself, Khaleda Zia said this was a politically motivated case. It is not clear how successful she has been in putting this idea across, but the activities and statements of the leaders and activists of the ruling party and its affiliates over the last few days, have certainly added sufficient political colour to the issue.
For politicians, the distance between the seat of power and prison is very little. Then there are instances of politicians’ images being hugely enhanced by imprisonment on minor charges. There are examples within the ruling party too of filing appeals after conviction and thus taking part in the election and active politics. That is why many people feel that if Khaleda Zia is left off the hook, the allegations of political harassment will gain credibility. And if she is convicted, then her followers will declare that she is a victim of injustice. They will thus organise with renewed verve.
During BNP’s 12 years outside of power, there have been several attempts to break up the party. All these efforts have gone in vain. This time, however, a part of the riling alliance feels that it will be easier to break the party. Former military ruler Ershad hopes that BNP will weaken and his party will be the alternative to Awami League. Given the prevailing records of alliance with Awami League, that hope seems futile. It is the understanding that Awami League’s real rival is still BNP that has generated so much political agitation over Khaleda Zia’s case. It is unfortunate that in this agitation, politics has eclipsed justice and injustice.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir, Consultant (Content) Prothom Alo English Online.