Khaleda’s release: Magnanimity, diversion or COVID-19?
Begum Khaleda Zia Is Set To Be Released.
Chairman of the major opposition party BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) and twice the prime minister of Bangladesh, Begum Zia was placed behind bars since 8 February 2018 by the ruling Awami League government which charged her with corruption and misuse of power. On Tuesday, 24 March, the government suddenly announced that it would suspend her sentence and conditionally release her for six months. One of the conditions is that she will remain at home and the other is that she cannot go abroad, even for medical treatment.
The decision to release Begum Zia, who is 74 years old and ailing, has been welcomed by her family, her party and by the general public among whom she has immense popularity, being leader of one of the major political parties of the country, former prime minister as well as widow of the former president Ziaur Rahman.
Khaleda Zia’s brother Shamim Iskander thanked the government, saying, “We are very happy with this decision.”
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BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said that despite the conditions attached, they “now feel relieved as she is going to be released as per her legal and constitutional rights.”
Her release at this time of crisis when the nation is panicked about the COVID-19 outbreak is being met with appreciation, despite the inevitable speculations and skepticism. This is undoubtedly a timely decision and a correct one.
However, the question which looms large in the public mind is why has the government, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in particular, whose animosity towards her political foe is no secret, suddenly decided to cut short the seven-year jail sentence, even if for only six months.
Khaleda, her family and her party have long been demanding release on health grounds, so she may be given medical treatment abroad. However, though she is being released, she is not being allowed to go abroad on treatment and so it is obvious the government did not have her health at heart when it came to the decision to release her.
Senior leaders of BNP had called upon the government not too long ago, seeking Begum Zia’s release. They were told this was not in the hands of the government. It was up to the court. And that was that.
More recently, on 4 March, members of Khaleda Zia’s family called upon the government for her release. The Home Minister said the matter had been sent on to the Law Minister for a decision.
The outcome of these efforts had apparently been negative, so why has there been this sudden U-turn and a positive decision passed to release her? Have her family’s efforts proven to be effective? Or are there other motives?
“The decision has been taken on humanitarian grounds,” Law Minister Anisul Huq said, adding that it was in line with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s directives, considering the age of the former prime minister.
The law minister’s statement indicates that the decision has been taken politically, not on legal grounds. So long they had been saying that it was a legal matter where the government had no hand. But this seems to be a volte-face.
Section 401 of the Criminal Code of Procedure does maintain that ‘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 persons sentenced accepts, suspend the execution of his [or her] sentence or remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he [or she] has been sentenced.’ And so the government has left no legal loophole and yet the question will inevitably be asked, if they could have legally released her so long, why now? Why not earlier? Or why not later?
It does seem that the coronavirus crisis is a major reason to take this decision to release Begum Khaleda Zia. It seems to be a humanitarian decision. After all, being over 70 puts her at a greater risk at these times. But she has been ailing long and had long been cooped up in almost solitary confinement in the abandoned prison on Nazimuddin Road in the old part of the capital city Dhaka. Humanitarian considerations had hardly surfaced these past two years. Did it take a pandemic to make a difference?
Another possible reason, also related to coronavirus, was that the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), where Begum Zia has been kept as prison patient, was under strict security. The hospital authorities said they were not seeing patients with even coughs, colds or any flu indications. They could not risk Khaleda Zia’s health, obviously. If she was infected by the virus in the hospital, that would create a massive hue and cry home and abroad of carelessness and deliberate negligence. The government wouldn’t want to take responsibility for such a catastrophe. And so an entire hospital, for one single VIP patient, could not be utilised to treat coronavirus patients during these critical times. It seemed to make more sense to release her, get credit for the release, and also free the hospital at the same time.
Political analysts are questioning, however, how beneficial it is for Khaleda Zia to be released at this critical juncture. Wouldn’t she be safer in hospital at this time? Travelling home, the possible jubilant crowds, the sudden release into the outside world from controlled hospital conditions at a time when coronavirus had broken out in the country, all posed as a risk.
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BNP leadership must deal with Begum Zia’s supporters firmly. Even the most ardent follower must adhere to the social distancing rule and not throng the venue of her release or her home. That would do her a great disservice.
On a more skeptical note, some analysts ask, is this release more of a diversion tactic than anything else. After all, the government is coming under a volley of criticism for its sheer mishandling of the corona crisis, failing to isolate Bangladeshi expatriates returning from Italy and elsewhere and failing to take adequate preparation when they had the time. With Khaleda Zia’s release being the focus for some time, the government can gain in two ways. One way is to gain political mileage from such a ‘magnanimous’ gesture. And the other is to make up for lost time in prepping for COVID-19 patients and take steps to control its spread, while attention is on Begum Zia.
Yet another question floats in the air. Is this just a six-month release for the corona crisis, or will the release order be extended after the six months is over? Time will tell.