By Dr. S. Chandasekharan
BNP’s Chairperson Khaleda Zia was sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment by a special court on 8th February. Soon after the court sentence was announced, Khaleda was taken to jail the same day under tight security. While being taken, she conveyed that all should hold peaceful programmes to protest the verdict. She also said that the verdict was politically motivated and that people will give a fitting reply to the ruling government in the next election.
Khaleda’s conviction may have significant political implications as it makes it uncertain her participation in the next national elections scheduled to take place by the end of this year. The big challenge for her would be to keep the party united and go for elections with other alliance partners. What is clear is no matter what type of government the country has during elections, the BNP will participate and will not make the mistake of boycotting it as it did earlier 2014 elections. A lesson was learnt and the mistake is not likely to be repeated!
Khaleda as expected will be going on appeal to the higher court. But it may take some time before it is heard as certified copies of the judgement will have to be provided to the Defence first. The question whether Khaleda would be able to contest the elections would depend on the result of the appeal. If the appeal is taken up without staying the sentence and even if she is granted bail, she cannot contest the elections as any sentence beyond two years will make her ineligible.
The BNP has been repeatedly pointing out that the case was politically motivated and in fact in briefing the diplomats in Dhaka a few days earlier the leadership accused the ruling party the Awami League of “making attempts to establish a one party fascist rule.” In fact the case was registered at the time of care taker’s regime in 2008. The timing of the sentence was not due to any manipulation as the delay was mainly due to the Defence going to higher court on several occasions challenging the trial court orders.
The graft case itself is a straightforward one and relates to misappropriation of over Tk 2.1 crore that had come from a foreign bank as grants for orphans. The case was based purely on documentary evidence that cannot be denied.
During her term as Prime Minister, Khaleda opened a bank account in the name of “Prime Minister’s Orphanage Trust.” Later, another trust was opened in the name of “Zia Orphanage trust” by Khaleda’s two sons and a nephew in 1993. From the PM’s trust, a sum of Tk 2,33,33,500 was transferred to the Zia trust to establish an orphanage. A sum of 400,000 was withdrawn to buy land that year itself. The balance amount was transferred to the bank accounts of three other accused in the case through different transactions. Thus, the money was transferred from a public account to a private account and there were no other transactions for the orphanage itself.
BNP Amends Its Charter
Anticipating a conviction, the BNP leadership had already amended Article 7 of its charter that stipulated that no one can stay in a party if convicted by the court. This had helped her son Tarique Rahman who is living in exile after being convicted in a money laundering case earlier and who stands convicted in the present case also to ten years, of taking over the leadership of the party while remaining in London in exile. It is a strange arrangement and sad to say that this is a curse of South Asian politics where lineage takes precedence over competence!
Response Peaceful – Thanks To Khaleda
To the credit of Khaleda it should be said that she had ensured that the party has not gone into “violence mode”following her conviction. There was an odd incident where the BNP followers stormed the Bangladesh mission and destroyed whatever objects they could lay their hands on. The British Police did not intervene.
It may be recalled that following the boycott of the 2014 January elections, the BNP and Jamaat activists targeted election officials, attacked schools and other buildings serving as polling places. The minority Hindu community was singled out for attacks. ( Bappy Rahman of 6th Feb 2018). The activists were responsible for many deaths of innocent persons in post election protests.
What the BNP Should Do
The BNP is at a historic cross road in its existence. Its core support is still intact and it is upto them to decide to either go on a self destructing violent path or go for peaceful protests and contest the elections.
The first thing they should do is to sever their relations with the JEI. Though the top leadership denies having anything to do with the JEI, at the grass roots level in almost all the places in Bangladesh, the two groups work together and the JEI cadres are the ones who initiate violent incidents.
In the National Executive meeting held on 4th Feb., ie before conviction, Khaleda had placed six conditions for participating in the elections. These were:
1- To establish a congenial atmosphere for voters to go to the polling centres.
2- To have a Poll time neutral government.
3- Conducting Elections neutrally by the Election Commission
4- Army deployment during polls.
5- Discarding the plan to use EVMs.
6- Dissolving the Parliament before elections.
Of these, the stumbling block would be 2 and 6. The BNP may have to be flexible on these two issues, as that would mean amending the constitution which is not possible now. The Election Commissioner K.M. Nurul Huda made a strange statement that an inclusive election will not be possible without the participation of a major political party like BNP. This should itself give some faith to the BNP of having a fair election under a congenial atmosphere.
Government’s Outline For Rhe Polls
Meanwhile, Hasina herself has outlined a frame work for Polls time “government.”
1- It will be smaller in size with limited jurisdiction that will carry out only routine work.
2- The Election Commission will play its role according to Article 126 of the Constitution.
3- The election Commission will be empowered with supervisory authority over the administration, law enforcement agencies and all other departments engaged in election process.
The BNP without even examining the provisions called it as a “ frame work for a partisan government!”
The Danger Is From Islamic Militant Outfits
While the BNP having learnt its lessons may not indulge in violence and it may perhaps dissuade its proxy JEI also from violence, there is a justifiable fear amongst official quarters that other banned Islamic outfits may exploit the situation and create chaos. Quoting sources, it is said that the outfits that need to be watched are JMB ( Jamaátul Mujahideen Banglasdesh), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HUJI), ABT ( Ansarullah Bangla Team) and Hizbul Tahrir. What is left out is the Ansar Al Islam- the Al Qaeda of Bangladesh which besides the JMB appears to be one of the most active militant outfits now. The Security agencies that include uniformed and plain clothes personnel and the Rapid Action Battalions are doing a tremendous job and should be able to handle the situation.
Source:- SAAG, South Asia Analysis Group