Dhaka: Bangladesh’s opposition chief and former premier Khaleda Zia was today granted bail in two graft cases after she appeared in a court here, leaving her office for the first time in nearly three months, amid signs that the country’s deadly political logjam was easing.
The 69-year-old Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson left her upmarket Gulshan office where she has been staying since January 3 to surrender in a special anti- graft court that granted her bail in two graft cases involving over USD 650,000.
Zia’s court appearance came 39 days after an arrest warrant was issued against her over repeated absence from trial in graft cases involving two charities named after her husband, slain president Zia-ur Rahman, and could see her jailed for life.
Zia, who is also a three-time prime minister, reached the court at Bashibazar area in old part of Dhaka while her motorcade was piloted by police cars as she came out of her office located on the other side of the capital.
Dhaka’s Third Special Judge Abu Ahmed Jamadar granted bail to Zia and two other accused, saying: “I wouldn’t have issued arrest warrant but I was forced to.”
He added: “(But) I had to agree with the state counsel’s argument that the trial cannot progress without issuing an arrest warrant.
The judge said he had no wish to send Zia to jail, given her age and that if she was found innocent, she would be acquitted.
Chief prosecution lawyer Mosharraf Hossain Kajol earlier told the court they would not oppose bail considering Zia’s “status, social and political dignity and age” as her counsels filed petitions seeking the bail.
Defence lawyers said Zia’s absence from the court was “unintentional”, attributing it to mainly “security reasons” and due to her son Arafat Rahman Koko’s death.
The former premier waved to supporters, who chanted pro- Zia slogans, as she left the court to return home.
A huge contingent of elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and armed police secured the court premises to prevent any law and order situation in the wake of clashes between BNP activists and ruling Awami League supporters that erupted when she last visited the court.
The bail could be a sign of easing tension in volatile Bangladesh where political unrest has claimed over 130 lives in the past 90 days. In another such potential sign, police overnight allowed party activists to enter their central office after three months.
Unlike ordinary prisoners, Zia was offered a comfortable chair in the courtroom during the hearing while the judge fixed May 5 for the next hearing.
Police had earlier claimed that the arrest warrant issued by the court against Zia did not reach the concerned police station due to which they could not comply with the order.
Soon after the adjournment of the court, Zia went to her posh residence called ‘Firoza’ at Gulshan area which her aides prepared ahead of her return, bringing back her essential personal belongings in boxes from the nearby office where she was confined to.
Zia’s office was kept under heavy security and she was confined there since a political unrest gripped the country beginning January 5, coinciding with the first anniversary of a divisive poll that was boycotted by the main opposition for “lack of a level-playing field”.
Police also barred Zia from coming out of her office on January 5 to join a protest, called by her party defying a ban, on the grounds of “law and order concerns”, prompting her to call for a non-stop nationwide blockade from the next day.
Police withdrew from the central office compound on Friday night after being stationed there for over three months to prevent BNP men from entering the office amid a violent street campaign allegedly spearheaded by BNP activists.
Most of the casualties took place in clandestine firebomb attacks on buses and trucks by suspected activists of BNP or its crucial ally fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami while angry mobs in some cases lynched the arsonists and some were killed in what police termed as encounters with the law enforcement agencies.
Several of the BNP stalwarts, including its acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, were in jail mostly for “instigating” violence.
Other BNP leaders maintained silence as the unrest sparked massive public outrage, prompting stern government actions against the “miscreants”.
But despite the subsequent withdrawal of police barricades, Zia preferred to stay back in her office and declined to go home or elsewhere.
Subsequently her party along with Jamaat-e-Islami also enforced a series of countrywide shutdowns as her part of a fierce campaign against the Awami League-led government of Zia’s archrival Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina demanding a midterm election.
The next elections are due in 2019 and Hasina and her party have said the polls would be held in due time.
In a recent change in strategy in its anti- government campaign, the BNP has decided to contest the upcoming mayoral elections in the capital and the southeastern port city of Chittagong fielding their candidates in the non-party polls to test their popularity.
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