Published:  08:51 AM, 31 March 2020

Begum frees Begum

Begum frees Begum

Janomot report: By releasing Begum Khaleda Zia from jail on Wednesday, the Awami League government of her bete noire, Begum Hasina Wazed, has made it appear that it is a humanitarian initiative. The administration in Dhaka has seemingly responded to pleas from members of Khaleda’s family and the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.

Her family had recently met Prime Minister Hasina and strongly requested her to grant the release of the former Prime Minister, citing her health condition. It may be just a coincidence that the order to free Khaleda, convicted in the Zia Orphanage Trust case, was announced within ten days of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary.

Her conviction has been stayed for six months under the Criminal Code of Procedure on humanitarian grounds, not least the age factor (74). Yet conditions do apply. She will have to stay in Dhaka and receive her treatment there. She will not be permitted to leave the country and will be confined to her residence in Dhaka’s Gulshan area.

It will be hard not to wonder whether the terms of her freedom ~ six months for now ~ is a euphemism for house arrest, but even if this is the case, it is infinitely better than being in jail. The BNP chief has been serving a 17-year prison term in two graft cases since 8 February 2018.

Members of her family and party colleagues have been trying to persuade the government to release her from prison for quite some time, citing her need for treatment abroad. An application was even submitted to the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University authorities in February, requesting them for a letter to the effect that she needed treatment abroad, which was to be submitted in court.

The application was turned down by the judiciary. At the end of the day, the deadly global scenario in the wake of coronavirus must have hastened Thursday’s decision to release her. Above all, there was the overriding anxiety of the Bangladesh government to try and ensure that nothing happened to her while she was in prison.

“If by chance she gets infected with Covid-19, then the government will be faced with trouble,” was the reason proffered by a senior bureaucrat. “So it’s better that she is released from prison now.” Politically, Begum Khaleda had had a fairly successful run, having served as the Prime Minister thrice since 1991.

Her party suffered a crippling blow in the 2018 elections, winning only six seats in the 300-member Parliament. Since then, both the person and the party have lunged from crisis to crisis. The setback was exacerbated when the Begum was convicted by a local court on charges of embezzling foreign donations meant for an orphanage.

She now walks free, at any rate from jail to her residence… at the intervention of her bitter political rival, Prime Minister Hasina. Let there be no hard feelings.

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