The Battle of the Two Begums of Bangladesh
The court becomes the battlefield
The judiciary in Bangladesh is under so much pressure that it is difficult to believe the five-year sentence given to former Prime Minister and Opposition leader Khaleda Zia is genuine.
The judges are on the run because of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s reported annoyance with them. One judge has gone abroad but may not return because he is said to be in the bad books of the Prime Minister. Understandably, the judge fears some action against him if and when he land at Dhaka. In fact, almost the entire judiciary is trying to rescue itself from the situation.
I am not trying to defend Begum Khaleda Zia. But the popular perception sees Sheikh Hasina’s hand behind court rulings to a point where judgments are not accepted at face value. Justice Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman of the Special Court, while convicting the former Prime Minister, said she was given a short jail term because of her “health and social status.” This means, the Begum cannot contest the upcoming general elections in December. The charges against her are embezzling funds to the tune of 21 million takas (approximately Rs. 1.6 crore) received from foreign donors and meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust run by the family.
In fact, along with Khaleda Zia, five other people, including her son Tarique Rahman, were sentenced to 10 years jail term. The prosecution argued that the Zia Orphanage Trust and the Zia Charitable Trust, established in the name of her late husband and former President Ziaur Rahman, existed only on paper. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief and three aides have also been accused of embezzling 31.5 million takas (approximately Rs 2.5 crore) from the Zia Charitable Trust.
Following the verdict, Begum Zia had claimed during a press conference that she was implicated in a false case, and accused the ruling government of unleashing terror. “I believe the court will acquit me of all charges,” she said. “It is a false case and a tool to harass me and my family.” If the judgment is delivered to appease the ruling quarters, it will create a history of stigma, she added.
Khaleda Zia further said that this was an attempt to use the court against her to sideline from politics and elections and to isolate her from the people. “I am ready to face all outcomes. I am not afraid of jail or punishment. I am not going to bow down my head,” said the former Prime Minister. But legal experts do say that the verdict could jeopardize Zia's career as she cannot contest polls, unless she manages to obtain a different direction from the Supreme Court.
A day after receiving a copy of the trial court's verdict, her counsels filed an appeal in the High Court challenging the verdict. The 1,223-page dossier, which mentions Abdur Rezak Khan as the filing lawyer, cited 25 grounds for Zia’s acquittal alleging that the verdict was politically motivated to debar her from contesting elections, an allegation denied by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government.
“As soon as the court schedules the hearing, we will file a bail petition,” Sagir Hossain, one of her defence counsels told the media. Court officials said a two-judge bench is expected to hear the appeal prayer later this week.
The corruption case is one of dozens pending against the Begum, who has been a rival of Prime Minister Hasina for decades. The charges against her had already led to her boycotting polls in 2014, which triggered widespread protests at the time.
Zia, however, appears to be seeking to contest the polls this year. BNP’s secretary-general Mirza Alamgir had said during a protest rally that the party would not take part in polls without Zia. He said: “No national elections will be held without BNP Chairperson Zia.”
However, Hasina contended that her government could do nothing if the BNP decides to boycott the polls. She said the elections will be held as per schedule in December whether or not the BNP takes part.
In her response to media criticism, Sheikh Hasina defended her government saying that the case against Khaleda Zia was filed in 2008 by the military-backed interim government led by Zia’s confidants while the independent Anti-Corruption Commission carried out its investigation. “What we could do if they want to abstain from the elections...the court has awarded her the imprisonment, we did not and (so) we can't withdraw it either,” she told a press conference.
Begum Zia, who served as the Prime Minister three times since 1991, faces 30 more charges, ranging from corruption to sedition. But the BNP was quick to react soon after she was convicted as it installed her son Rahman as the acting party chief. This was, understandably, derided by the government. Hasina even commented by saying that it reflected the BNP’s “moral poverty.”
It’s praiseworthy that the judiciary in the third world has stayed independent. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to step down because the Pakistan Supreme Court, while holding him guilty, said the ousted Prime Minister tried to fool the court and people, both inside and outside Parliament, and never came up before the court with the whole truth. Nawaz Sharif has accepted the verdict with the remark that he would go back to the people.
Similar is the case with Lalu Prasad Yadav, the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, who has been sentenced in the fodder scam by the Ranchi High Court. There are several such examples where politicians had to step down. There are also ample examples of politicians bouncing back and challenging the verdict so that they stay relevant with the public.
The system needs to be overhauled so as to disqualify corrupt politicians for life. The Supreme Court in India has hinted by saying that “criminal politicians” should not serve in the government. But the apex court has left it to the executive to make necessary changes in the system. This has not worked so far. How does the Supreme Court expect that it would in the future?