The lone prisoner in Old Dhaka jail

September 08, 2018 06:49 pm | Updated 06:49 pm IST

 Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson Khaleda Zia

Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson Khaleda Zia

It was a day of anger and frustration for former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, serving time in prison since February 8 in connection with a corruption case. About seven months after she was jailed for five years for embezzling funds meant for an orphanage, she made another court appearance in a different case. This case was connected to abuse of power in alleged fundraising for a charity from unknown sources.

On September 5, the government tightened security in and around the colonial-era Old Dhaka jail where Ms. Zia is the lone prisoner. As the day unfolded, a prison guard drove Ms. Zia by wheelchair into a makeshift courtroom set up inside the jailhouse.

Ms. Zia, in her signature pink saree and white shoes, appeared frail. A room on the ground floor of the prison’s administrative building was converted into the courtroom. The room was prepared for the trial with the judge’s bench covered in red cloth; a witness box and chairs for prosecution; and defence lawyers.

The latest court appearance stemmed from a case filed by the Anti Corruption Commission seven years ago. At the heart of the case is the controversial fund of 31.5 million taka raised for Zia Charitable Trust. These corruption charges and a litany of other allegations in 37 cases are seen as a way to shut Ms. Zia, the chief of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, out of the parliamentary election due in December.

As the judge, Mohammad Akhtaruzzaman, started the day shortly after midday, Ms. Zia said she has lost faith in the justice system.

Khaleda Zia’s latest trial took place in a colonial-era prison, converted into a courtroom. Unrepresented by a lawyer on the day and tired of the proceedings, Ms. Zia said she had lost faith in the justice system

‘I won’t get justice’

Ms. Zia sat through the court proceedings in her wheelchair, wiping her face with tissue several times during a hearing that lasted around half an hour. A table covered in white cloth had been placed in front of her. A box of tissue and a bottle of water were provided to her. In the middle of the proceedings, Ms. Zia sought to speak and told the judge that she would not be able to appear in court time and again. “Punish me for as long as you wish to. I won’t be able to come here again and again,” she said, in signs of frustration over the government’s handling of the case. “A court cannot operate this way and I know I won’t get justice.” Amid angry reactions from Ms. Zia in the dock, the judge adjourned the court and set the next hearing for September 12-13.

The first day of the hearing passed with no defence lawyers in court. Ms. Zia said the makeshift court was set up at short notice, which left her lawyers unprepared. However, prosecutors insisted that they sent copies of the government notice to Ms. Zia’s lawyers and informed them by phone as well.

While the government cited security reasons behind the decision on the temporary court, Ms. Zia’s lawyers later called it “a trial in camera”.

On her way out of the courtroom, Ms. Zia told the waiting reporters that the government decided to set up the makeshift court five days ago but made the notice public hours before the hearing on purpose. Ms. Zia, 73, also drew attention to her failing health: her left leg was swollen with its “severity bordering on paralysis”.

The court drama prompted sharp reactions from Ms. Zia’s arch-rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. “Audacious remarks on the court come from the guilty mind. Her lawyers knew it very well that it would be useless to defend Khaleda Zia in court. That’s why they made excuses,” Ms. Hasina said on September 6. “It was not a trial in-camera at all. All the doors were open,” she added.

Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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