DHAKA: A top Bangladesh court ruled Wednesday opposition leader Khaleda Zia’s trial over embezzlement charges should go ahead in a case that could see her jailed for life, a prosecutor said.
The High Court rejected the former two-time premier’s bid to quash the trial which had been scheduled to start in a lower court this week after she was indicted on charges of embezzling more than $650,000.
“Both her appeals have been rejected. There is no bar to continue her trial in the two cases,” deputy attorney general Mohammad Selim told AFP.
Zia’s lawyers have called the charges politically motivated, aimed at destroying her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which has vowed to topple the government of arch rival Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Zia was indicted just weeks after Hasina was re-elected in a January 5 general election which the centre-right BNP and its 18 opposition allies boycotted and denounced as a farce.
Police detained thousands of opposition officials and supporters and charged many more during and after the election, which was the bloodiest in the country’s short history.
Zia’s lawyer Sanaullah Miah said he would now lodge an appeal in the Supreme Court, in a final attempt to stop the trial from going ahead in a special anti-corruption court in Dhaka.
“It is now clear that the government wants to put Zia in jail. That’s why we are not getting any justice in any court,” he told AFP.
The trial had been scheduled to start on Monday but was adjourned until after the two-judge bench of the High Court had ruled on the appeal.
Selim said the prosecution has “strong cases” against Zia and there was little chance of the defence succeeding in getting the trial halted.
Security was tight ahead at the High Court ahead of the verdict with hundreds of police patrolling the complex in central Dhaka in case of opposition protests. Prosecutors say Zia and three of her co-accused siphoned off 31.5 million taka (about $400,000) from a charitable trust named after her late husband Ziaur Rahman, a former president who was assassinated in 1981. She is also accused of leading a group of five people, including her eldest son Tarique Rahman, in embezzling 21.5 million taka ($270,00), funds which were meant to go to orphanage set up in memory of her late husband.
The charges date back to Zia’s last term as prime minister from 2001 to 2006 and can carry a life sentence, prosecutors have said.
Zia, who first became premier in 1991, has a famously poisonous relationship with Hasina — an enmity which dates back three decades.
Zia was kept under de facto house arrest for more than a week ahead of the elections in January.
Hasina was overwhelmingly re-elected at those polls in what was effectively a one-horse race after the BNP and other opposition parties refused to field candidates over rigging fears.
Nearly 200 people died in political violence in the run-up to the election as the opposition and security forces fought pitched battles.
Zia spent nearly two years behind bars in 2007-08 when both she and Hasina were detained by a military-backed government as part of a crackdown on corruption. Both women were eventually freed without charge.
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