Bangladesh’s former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been in jail for over 18 months, serving a 17-year prison sentence ordered by a local court. Khaleda served as the country’s prime minister thrice before and was the chief of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Bangladesh’s main opposition party. She is now convicted, in two separate cases, of embezzling foreign funds, intended for a local charity named after her late husband, former President Ziaur Rahman.

Khaleda’s lawyers have moved the country’s courts of second instance to get the verdict overturned.

An attempt at political negotiation

The former prime minister, now 74 years old, is fighting a legal battle to prove her innocence. According to her lawyers, she could be freed if the courts would grant her bail in at least two lawsuits. Judges however have rejected her bail appeal several times and BNP members are now planning to appeal to the High Court in Dhaka.

Khaleda's BNP has been accused of nurturing close ties with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami. Many of the party's members, like Matiur Rahman Nizami (pictured above) have been linked with ordering the killings of freedom fighters during Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971.

Khaleda’s BNP has been accused of nurturing close ties with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami. Many of the party’s members, like Matiur Rahman Nizami (pictured above) have been linked with ordering the killings of freedom fighters during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.

Speaking to DW, BNP’s Standing Committee Member Goyeshwar Chandra Roy said ‘’Khaleda would have been granted bail if the court would consider her social-political, gender and physical status.”

Meanwhile, speculation is rife that the ruling Awami League and the BNP have been negotiating behind the scenes. Local media reported that BNP lawmaker Harunur Rashid met the ruling party’s general secretary and Road Transport and Bridge Minister Obaidul Quader earlier this month. ‘’I have requested Obaidul Quader to inform Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina about Khaleda’s recent situation,” he told DW.

Read more: Bangladesh hangs two opposition leaders for war crimes

Asked whether Khaleda Zia’s bail was dependent upon the government’s will, Rashid said that on many occasions, accused persons, including those convicted of murder had received bail orders from the high court, but Khaleda had been denied bail. Members of the ruling party, however, denied having anything to do with the matter, saying bail for the BNP leader was a matter for the judiciary.

A conspiracy by the ruling party?

Bangladesh has a multi-party parliamentary system. The ruling Awami League (AL), led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia are the two dominant political parties in the country.

Filing cases against members of the opposition is a common practice in Bangladesh. On many occasions, courts dismiss cases for lack of legal merit. BNP leaders have claimed that the lawsuits against their leader Khaleda were “intentionally designed” to harass and undermine her political career, a claim denied by Hasina’s Awami League.

Political negotiation to escape legal punishment is no new in the political atmosphere in Bangladesh. In the past, Bangladesh’s former military dictator, the late Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who ruled over the country for nine years, was sued in 26 cases after being removed from his position after popular unrest. The late dictator, however, managed to escape imprisonment by using Bangladesh’s political practices to his advantage.

Are the BNP’s days numbered?

The BNP was founded in 1978 by former President Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda Zia’s husband. Over the years, the party managed to form the government three times and otherwise established itself as a major opposition group in the parliament.  However, after 2006, it was unable to mobilize public support. In the 2008 elections, it managed to enter the parliament as the main opposition party, but boycotted elections in 2014, demanding an interim government, which was denied by the ruling AL.   

Read more: Is Bangladesh becoming an autocracy?

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Bangladesh opposition: World should reject poll

Khaleda was imprisoned months before Bangladesh’s national elections in December 2018, causing a leadership vacuum in her party. Her son Tarique Rahman, expected to be the party’s next leader, faces a lifelong prison sentence and is currently living in London. Without its two main leaders, the BNP managed to win only seven seats out of 300 in the election. 

South Asia expert at Germany’s Rhine-Waal University, Dieter Reinhardt also thinks that BNP is in the process of dissolution but can perhaps survive as a small party in the years to come. He says, the BNP’s decision of joining hands with the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami, its vague political manifesto and the fact that its leader, Tarique Rahman, lives abroad, have weakened its stance among its supporters.

Political scientist Salimullah Khan believes the BNP may be experiencing difficult times, but still has a chance to revive its support base, particularly because no other party, at this point in time, can replace it as the major opposition group.

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