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Bar on Khaleda's treatment abroad, legal or political?

Illustration Masuk Helal

The unfortunate and unseemly debate over the medical treatment of former prime minister Khaleda Zia is being unjustly prolonged. For over a year, BNP and Khaleda Zia's family have been repeatedly requesting, appealing and demanding the government to provide the opportunity for her treatment abroad. Out of concern and anxiety, it is only natural for the family and the party of a woman over 70 years old to implore for the opportunity to have her treated aboard, given the grave state of her health. By meeting this demand, the government can display itself as humane and liberal, countering the allegations that it wants to cruelly eliminate the opposition party and silence the critics. However, the government has indirectly made it clear that it is not willing to do so.

The reason of mentioning "indirectly" is that the home minister directly did not reject the applications he received. He said that he would duly send the letters to the appropriate place. If the applications cannot be accepted under the legal jurisdiction or it goes against the law and is unprecedented, the applicants must be directly informed.

Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader alleged BNP is making the treatment of Khaleda Zia a political issue. Saying that life and death is in the hands of Allah, he asked, "Why should the government be responsible for death of any person?" Several leaders raised the question as to why should she be sent abroad if there is scope for treatment in the country. However, during the question-answer sessions in the parliament about Khaleda Zia's treatment and in answering reporters, the remarks the law minister made are highly significant.

While speaking during the budget discussion on 30 June, law minister Anisul Huq said, "BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia has to formally seek apology by confessing her guilt if she wants to go abroad for treatment. As per the law, Khaleda Zia has no other means to go abroad." He said there was no mention of law in the application filed for taking Khaleda Zia abroad. Taking that application into consideration, the government released her on two conditions, suspending her sentence. The two conditions are: she would undergo treatment at her residence and stay in the country. In his statement, he also mentioned there was no scope to review the application which has been resolved.

Two months later, on 28 August, in a workshop of the law reporters' forum, he said Khaleda Zia, who was freed on conditions after suspension of her sentence, has to go to jail and file an application again if she wants to go abroad (Desh Rupantor 29 August 2021). When pro-BNP lawyers submitted a memorandum on 23 November to the law minister for sending Khaleda Zia abroad for treatment, he sought time to examine this (Manabkantha 23 November 2021). However, he repeatedly said the government suspended her sentence disposing her application under Section 401 of Criminal Procedure and the government won't do anything outside of the law.

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The discussions on the budget and statements in the meeting of law reporters' forum indicate that the government can find a out way if it wants. However, the government wants that she either goes back to jail or she seeks apology confessing her guilt and she applies anew. Why is the government setting conditions of going back to jail if there is no opportunity in the law? Or is the target of the condition to go back to jail or to seek apology just to humiliate the political opponent whose life is at stake, and who did not confess to the so-called crime, and all scope of appeals are not exhausted as yet?

There is no law on accepting or managing parole in the country, but there are instances that the home ministry handles the issue of parole as per its wish. Were the conditions of going to jail followed in connection with freeing Haris and his elder brother Anis who were convicted in a murder case? Other than these convicted criminals, there are instances of politicians. Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal leader ASM Abdur Rab, Awami League leader Mohammad Nasim and Khaleda Zia's elder son Tarique Rahman, all went abroad for treatment with permission under the special consideration of the government.

The government has power to pardon or give prior release without parole. As per three sections of the Prison Act 125 years old, the government has been empowered to frame rules to commute punishment of prisoners and prior release. It is not like that this power is not used to serve political purpose. As per Prisons Act, sections 5, 7 and 9 of 59, the government may make rules for the award of marks and the shortening of sentences; defining the circumstances and regulating the conditions under which prisoners in danger of death may be released; and for the regulation by numbers, length or character of sentences, or otherwise, of the prisoners to be confined in each class of prisons.

With laws for humanitarian grounds in consideration of the risk of death, the political debate is completely unnecessary. Rather this debate is increasing political divisions among the political opponents. During the coronavirus pandemic, considering the risk of death, the government has released about 3,000 convicted accused.

Although it has been said the criminals with short sentences have been released, we have learnt from newspapers that life sentenced accused and those who have served jail term over two decades have got the opportunity. The government, however, has not disclosed yet as to how it freed notorious criminal like Bikash before the end of his jail term.

As the law and the proof of the government's power from instances in the past, it is clear that the political decision of the government is the main consideration. Many of Awami League leaders indirectly indicated that the cruelty BNP showed during its rule the party does not deserve humanity. There are serious allegations including the grenade attack on 21 August, its investigation and thwarting its trial. It is also said she will not return if she goes abroad. This indicates that they have concern if she becomes active in politics after she recovers.

Unbecoming debates should be avoided as the decision of the government is final although others may not support it. Since Obaidul Quader said that BNP has no ability to even bring out a procession on the streets, then their political decision should be clearly expressed.


Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.