Khaleda Zia: Bangladesh's fighter Begum and former premier marred by controversies

WION Web Team Dhaka, Bangladesh Dec 18, 2018, 02.25 PM(IST)

File photo: Khaleda Zia. Photograph:( ANI )

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Khaleda Zia's political journey has been marred by controversies and allegations of corruption.

Bangladesh's politics has been more of a tussle between two women who have ruled over the country, taking turns, for nearly three decades now. Incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her arch-rival Khaleda Zia belong to families that had men fight for the cause of Bangladesh's liberation but with time the two women led separate camps to contest the general polls.

Begum Khaleda Zia was Bangladesh's First Lady when her husband Ziaur Rahman served as the President.

Born in northwestern Bangladesh in 1945, Khaleda married General Ziaur Rahman, one of the country’s liberation war heroes, in 1960. Her husband became president in 1977, and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), but was assassinated in an attempted coup in 1981.

Described as a shy housewife, Zia was devoted to raising her two sons and didn't bat an eye before taking over the reins of BNP when she was elected as the chairperson in August 1984, two years after army chief Hossain Mohammad Ershad seized power in 1982.

Zia joined other anti-Ershad groups in a seven-party alliance and was detained several times during his autocratic nine-year rule. In December 1990, Ershad was forced to resign after a popular uprising and Khaleda won the 1991 elections. Zia became country's first female leader, second in Muslim majority nations after Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto.

She was ousted from power by her rival Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party in 1996, only to return to office in 2001. In October 2006 her five-year term ended and she handed over power to a caretaker administration ahead of elections that were subsequently delayed.

The general elections of 2014 were boycotted by the BNP, Sheikh Hasina emerged victorious and assumed office as the Prime Minister.

Zia’s political journey has been marred by controversies and allegations of corruption.

Khaleda suffered a big blow after an army-backed interim government took power in January 2007 amidst political instability and street violence, cancelling a planned election. She struggled to keep the BNP united.

Khaleda’s rival and incumbent Prime Minister Hasina accused Khaleda’s BNP and its Islamic allies of having links to outlawed Islamist groups.

Khaleda and her son Tarique Rahman were accused of orchestrating a grenade attack on Hasina’s political rally in 2004, although Hasina was unharmed in the attack, as many as 24 people were killed with around 500 injured.

Zia’s son Rahman was jailed for life in the 2004 blast case this October. The special court in Dhaka also gave the death penalty to several other members of the BNP, including former junior home minister Lutfuzzaman Babar for the attack on a public rally in 2004, news agency Reuters reported. Rahman is now living in London ostensibly to evade the law after a court sentenced him to life imprisonment for masterminding a grenade attack in 2004.

In February 2018, Khaleda was jailed for five years on corruption charges that she alleged were part of a plot to hamper her political career. On October 30, her jail term was doubled to 10 years over an appeal by Bangladesh’s Anti Corruption Commission. Last month, Bangladesh’s top law officer said that said that Zia cannot run for office in December’s general polls.

Her ability to contest the polls has been in doubt since her incarceration but colleagues in her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have said they were hoping she would be released ahead of the elections on December 30.

Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said that according to the law, even if Khaleda was released from jail, she would not be allowed to contest the polls, news agency Reuters reported.

Zia challenged the decision as a result of which, the Bangladesh High Court on December 11 delivered a split verdict over Zia’s candidacy in the upcoming general election.

One of the judges of the two-member High Court bench favoured Zia's candidacy while the other ruled that she was disqualified from the polls for being a convicted prisoner serving a 10-year jail term in two graft cases, news agency PTI reported.

The BNP forged an alliance with three smaller parties last month, seeking to unseat Hasina from her decade-long reign, however, with the absence of two of its top leaders, the party has fallen into a state of disarray.

Analysts say political and legal considerations have forced the BNP to take part in the upcoming polls as it could lose its registration with the Election Commission as a political party if it boycotted polls for the second consecutive time.

If Khaleda is barred from running, it would be the first time the BNP will go to polls without her at the helm.