Bangladesh ex-PM Khaleda freed on humanitarian grounds, her party says

AFP Dhaka, Bangladesh Mar 25, 2020, 05.07 PM(IST)

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia waves to activists as she arrives for a rally in Dhaka Photograph:( Reuters )

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Her health has been deteriorating for months and she was moved to a hospital in April last year

Bangladesh’s ailing former prime minister Khaleda Zia was released from prison on Wednesday on humanitarian grounds, her party said.

Khaleda, 74, was jailed in 2018 following her conviction for graft. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had suspended her prison term for six months, her party general secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said.

Her health has been deteriorating for months and she was moved to a hospital in April last year.

Law and Justice Minister Anisul Huq said the move came after a brother and sister of Zia -- who has been in prison for two years -- appealed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to let her arch-rival fly to London for treatment.

Hasina and Zia are bitter rivals whose families have dominated Bangladesh's politics since independence in 1971.

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Huq said, however, the 74-year-old Zia would not be allowed to go to another country.

"On the basis of the application and having been directed by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Begum Khaleda Zia's conviction has been suspended," Huq told AFP.

She is freed "on condition that she remains in her Dhaka residence to receive treatment and does not go abroad".

There was no immediate comment from Zia's family or her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Sentenced to 10 years in jail on graft charges, Zia also faces nearly three dozen other outstanding cases. The BNP says the charges are politically motivated to keep her out of politics.

Her lawyers have had repeated bail applications rejected. They have argued that she could die in prison without proper treatment. 

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A recent leaked medical report on Zia's health said her rheumatoid arthritis was becoming increasingly serious. She has already had two knee replacement operations.

"As a result of combined active disease and accompanied damage she is, at present, at a crippled state and largely dependent on assistance for her day-to-day activities," the report said.

Hasina took over as prime minister from Zia in 2009 and has ruled since.

The United States, which has warm relations with Bangladesh, said it welcomed the decision to free Zia and pointed to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The global pandemic "needs leadership that is compassionate and prioritizes national unity," Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia, wrote on Twitter.