By Kamran Reza Chowdhury on Feb 14, 2020
After other attempts failed, a top official from the party of jailed Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia for the first time has telephoned a counterpart in the ruling Awami League to appeal directly to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to free her ailing bitter foe on medical grounds.
Since Zia was sentenced to prison to two years ago on corruption charges, the former three-time prime minister, supporters and family have tried through the courts or called on the authorities to free her so she can seek private health care or medical treatment abroad.
Now, she and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are hoping that Hasina will respond favorably to this latest attempt at persuading the government to intervene and free Zia, 74, after the country’s Supreme Court in December rejected a bail petition for her release.
BNP standing committee member Zamiruddin Sirkar confirmed this was the first official call to ask Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to allow Zia’s release.
“It can happen in politics. Madam Khaleda Zia was the prime minister for three terms. There is no issue in requesting the incumbent prime minister agree to her release,” he told BenarNews.
On Friday, Awami League Secretary General Obaidul Quader said he had received the phone call from his BNP counterpart, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
“He sought Khaleda Zia’s release from jail on behalf of his party and asked that I convey his call to the prime minister. I have conveyed the matter to the prime minister,” Quader told reporters.
Zia was convicted and sentenced to prison on Feb. 8, 2018, on charges of embezzling more than 21 million taka (U.S. $249,000) from the Zia Orphanage Trust, which she headed. She spent the first year of her incarceration as the lone inmate at the Old Dhaka Central Jail before being transferred to a state-run hospital named after Hasina’s late father, the founding leader of Bangladesh.
She has remained in custody while being treated as a patient at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) Hospital since April 2019, after her condition deteriorated.
BNP officials and Zia’s family have filed a series of requests seeking her release to allow her to be treated by her own physicians at a private hospital.
On Tuesday, Zia’s family members visited her at the hospital. Afterward, her sister, Selima Islam, appealed for the ex-prime minister’s release on humanitarian grounds because she suffers from respiratory issues. Zia was the first woman to lead the Bangladesh government.
In parliament the next day, BNP lawmaker G.M. Siraj proposed that Hasina should go to the hospital to visit Zia.
Meanwhile, AL’s Quader told reporters that BNP and Khaleda’s family had not submitted any petition to the Home or Law ministries requesting her release.
“It is not a political matter. It’s a legal issue and needs to be solved through the court,” he said.
He also said the government wanted to ensure that Zia was getting proper care.
“However, the statements made by the BNP leaders regarding Khaleda Zia’s physical condition do not match with the reports provided by physicians,” Quader said.
Hospital official: ‘She is doing quite well’
Kanak Kanti Barua, the hospital’s vice chancellor, said Zia’s condition was being monitored constantly, but promised an additional checkup.
“There is a medical board monitoring the treatment of Zia that reports every week on her physical condition,” he told BenarNews. “According to information provided to us, Khaleda’s physical condition did not deteriorate – she is doing quite well.
“Her family and the political party are saying that her physical condition is not well, so we will consider their concern and conduct another checkup. I can assure that there is no negligence on her treatment.”
In December, the Supreme Court ruled against allowing Zia to be freed on bail while ordering authorities to make sure she got “advanced treatment” in line with the medical board’s recommendations, local media reported.
On Friday, after a BNP standing committee meeting, Mirza Fakhrul said the party would stage demonstrations across the nation on Saturday demanding Zia’s release.
“Madam is ill and she needs proper treatment. We will not play politics in such a situation. The government, if necessary, must allow her to go abroad for better treatment,” he said.
A political analyst said AL’s political luster could improve if it agreed to BNP’s request.
“I think the government’s image will be bright if they release Zia considering her physical condition and all other things,” Tareque Samsur Rahman of Jahangirnagar University told BenarNews.
He also said he did not believe Zia’s release would strengthen BNP because the party was in a weakened state.
Hasina took the oath of office for a record fourth term following a landslide win the December 2018 general election.
In addition, Rahman discounted calls for Zia to admit to her crimes.
“Some Awami League leaders are saying Khaleda Zia will have to confess and seek presidential mercy. I think she will not confess, which will be suicidal for BNP because it would lose all its political standing if she agreed,” he said.