Bangladesh's beleaguered former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was expected to surrender to a Dhaka court today, April 5, on charges of instigating a deadly petrol bomb attack on a bus during an anti-government protest last year. It is the latest development in a feud that began in 1991 between Khaleda and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and has grown steadily into arguably the world’s bitterest.
Remarkably, the country has continued to develop socially and economically, making strides in providing schooling for children, improving gender equality, boosting maternal and child health and reducing poverty. It is the dysfunctional political situation that has handicapped the country. There have been four successful elections in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008. The opposition has won each time, an unmatched record in Asia, with the two women trading the premiership and swearing a vendetta against the loser.
That ended in 2014 when 21 parties boycotted the elections as Hasina paid no heed to their demands for a non-party caretaker government for holding elections. Mired in controversy, elections were held in only 147 of 300 seats in 59 of 64 districts of the country with 153 candidates elected uncontested.
Boycott faces heavy cost
According to results from the Election Commission, Hasina’s ruling Awami League party won 232 seats, securing a three-fourths majority in parliament in the election. Sheikh Hasina formed her new cabinet taking the oath of office for the second consecutive term.
Thus the traditional five-year rotation of political power between the two has been crippled, with Hasina gaining great influence in the judiciary, silencing media critics and, amending the constitution to cancel the caretaker government system for elections. It now looks like Hasina has her opponent on the ropes for at least the rest of the decade barring unforeseen circumstances.
Khaleda’s lawyer told reporters she would seek bail after the court appearance, which came four days after a judge issued an arrest warrant against the 70-year-old head of the Bangladesh National Party and 27 others from her party. She was not immediately available for comment.
At least 120 people were killed and hundreds injured in early 2015 in the attempt by the BNP and its 20-party alliance to bring down Hasina’s government.
In the latest development, Judge Kamrul Hossain Mollah, after accepting the charges against 38 people, ordered Zia's arrest in connection with the arson attack in the Jatrabari area in Dhaka in January. She and leaders of her party have denied the accusations of responsibility for the fire, saying the charges are politically motivated.
Khaleda on the ropes?
The arrest order was another blow to the embattled two-time former premier, who has described previous cases, including corruption-related ones, against her as politically motivated and aimed at keeping her out of the country's politics. The Hasina regime has punished many of Zia’s supporters by slapping sedition charges on them for working against the so-called liberation war in 1971 that led to the creation of Bangladesh out of Pakistan. On Dec. 21, Zia expressed “doubts" about the casualty figures of the 1971 war, leading to a charge of sedition against her from the government. "There are controversies over how many were martyred in the Liberation War. There are also many books and documents on the controversies," she said.
The vendetta between the two aging women has turned extremely ugly in recent months as the Hasina regime has sworn to finish off Khaleda politically by using her presumed ties to Pakistan as villain. The fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, which was supposedly opposed to Bangladesh's independence, is a crucial BNP ally.
Hasina’s Awami League, 1971 veterans and members of the martyred families reacted sharply to Zia's comments, with some calling her an "agent of Pakistan." According to official figures, about three million people were killed during the nine-month long war against Pakistan.
The move to bring Khaleda to court came a day after the Home Ministry gave its clearance to push forward the case. Supreme Court lawyer Mamtaz Uddin Ahmed Mehedi on Dec. 27 ordered Zia to be tried. The magistrate at that time ordered a police investigation into the allegation and asked the petitioner to obtain government clearance to move the sedition case as required by the law, which prescribes punishment “with rigorous imprisonment which may extend to 10 years and shall also be liable to fine" for condemnation of the creation of the State Bangladesh and advocacy of abolition of its sovereignty.
BNP says no sedition
BNP leader and senior lawyer Khandker Mahbub Hossain claimed that "there is no element of sedition in (Zia's) statement" although Khaleda has termed the present government "illegal.”
The Hasina government, while wanting the opposition to end demonstrations, never wanted peace with opposition and is eager to punish the BNP leader. Khaleda announced mass rallies in Dhaka's Suhrawardy Udyan and across the nation Jan on 20, also announcing nationwide mass protests and black flag processions Jan 29.
She addressed the media a day after meeting her allies in the 18-Party alliance. The government accelerated what critics have called a witch hunt on Khaleda Zia. The confrontation continues, with the country’s social and political institutions bearing the brunt.
It is time for the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, the United Nations Security Council, the United States and other world bodies to step in and end blood thirsty attitude of the Hasina regime, seeking to abolish all opposition parties and make Bangladesh an autocracy with a one-party system. Those nations that have discarded democracy for one-party systems have usually ended in disaster. There appears no reason to think it won’t happen again.
Abdul Ruff is chancellor and founder of the Center for International Affairs.