Bangladesh opposition leader and former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia walked out of the jail on Wednesday afternoon after 25 months as the government conditionally suspended her jail term by six months.

Hundreds of leaders and activists of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party welcomed her at the gate of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, where Zia had been undergoing treatment from last year for several conditions, including arthritis, problems in her neck and waist, and eye problems.

Zia, the 74-year-old widow of former Bangladesh president Ziaur Rahman, has been freed on the condition that she receives treatment at home during this period and that she cannot go abroad. Her family had repeatedly requested the Sheikh Hasina government to release her so that she could go to London for better treatment.

The former Bangladesh prime minister had been found guilty of corruption and sent to jail for five years in February, 2018. She was accused of misusing her power by embezzling $250,000 in donations meant for an orphanage trust.

In October, a court ruling on her appeal doubled her jail term. She had been serving her time in a jail in the older part of the capital, which once housed the Dhaka Central Jail.

Her Bangladesh Nationalist Party says the cases were fabricated and aimed at keeping Zia away from politics, allegations denied by Hasina’s government.

Minimum damage

Ali Riaz, a non-resident senior fellow of US-based Atlantic Council, told this correspondent that the Awami League government has chosen a time to release Khaleda Zia when it would cause minimum political damage to the ruling party and provide very little political mileage to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Questions remain whether Khaleda Zia’s deteriorating health prompted the decision or the government was looking for an opportunity when the release will have the minimum immediate political impact,” he said.

Riaz said that was a shrewd political move by the government. “This will be portrayed as a humanitarian gesture on the part of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,” he said. “The ruling party is likely to insist on an undefined reciprocal move from Khaleda Zia. Unless a behind-the-scenes agreement regarding the nature of reciprocity was reached, this will be somewhat advantageous to the ruling party in the coming months.”

Riaz said the conditional release for a limited period is a testimony of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s failure to mount a political movement and demonstrates its organisational weaknesses.

Khaleda Zia on Wednesday, after she was released from jail. Credit: AFP

Questions over procedure

Riaz said the ruling party will face adverse reactions and serious questions about procedure.

“Suspension of the sentence and conditional release came through executive actions rather than thorough judicial process,” he noted. “The option of the executive measure was always there, yet the prime minister and ministers insisted for the past years that they can do nothing and only court can grant her bail.”

He added: “This measure shows that prime minister was unwilling to take the action, rather than unable. This will bolster the common perception that executive’s power triumphs the judicial process.”

Dhaka- based journalist Nazmul Ahasan said, that the biggest casualty in this “political fiasco” of releasing Zia amidst the pandemic is probably the people’s perception of justice in Bangladesh.

“The government persistently claimed that it had nothing to with Khaleda Zia being convicted and that it could do nothing to secure her release; after all, it is a decision that only a court could take,” said Ahasan.

Undermining the judiciary

In its decision to free Khaleda Zia temporarily, the government invoked Section 401 (1) of The Code of Criminal Procedure, which states:

“When any person has been sentenced to punishment for an offence, the government may at any time without conditions or upon any conditions which the person sentenced accepts, suspend the execution of his sentence or remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced”

If that is the case, Ahasan said, “Does it not send a signal that the executive branch of the government can overturn any decision of the judiciary?”

He added: “Khaleda Zia’s corruption charges went all the way up to the Supreme Court. If the law ministry and interior ministry, with the stroke of a pen, could supersede the decision of the highest court of this land, how much should we trust our leaders when they insist our judiciary is independent.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist who lives in Dhaka.