With the 11th national general elections only a year away, whether Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) â€“ which boycotted the last national elections â€“ will participate in the elections is on everyoneâ€™s minds.
That participation hinges heavily on whether BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia will eventually be allowed to take part in the elections, given that she is mired in a number of lawsuits involving corruption, murder, instigating violence, sabotage, defamation, sedition, and distortion of the history of Liberation War.
Top BNP leaders are confident that Khaleda Zia will be able to participate in the elections. â€œThe cases and arrest warrants against Khaleda Zia are conspiratorial and malicious,â€ said BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
BNP leaders feel that none of the verdicts will be delivered before the elections, and in case they are, they can get a stay order from the courts.
Khaleda at present faces 36 cases.
Twelve of the cases were filed during the tenure of army-backed 1/11 government which sat between 2006 and 2008.
Police have submitted charges in a total of 17 cases.
After moving slowly over the past few years, the trials in these cases have picked up momentum in recent times.
If convicted, Khaleda could face life term imprisonment for the charges brought against her under Specials Power Act, while charges of sedition carry capital punishment.
Prominent among the lawsuits Khaleda faces are the Zia Charitable Trust and Zia Orphanage Trust embezzlement cases, currently under trial at the Dhaka Special court in Bakshibazar. Khaleda stands accused of embezzling Tk6.19 crore from the charitable trust and Tk2.1 crore from the orphanage trust. At present, the courts are hearing the defense. Both courts had earlier issued arrest warrants against Khaleda for failing to appear during proceedings.
If convicted, Khaleda faces a maximum punishment of seven years imprisonment in each of these cases. Khaleda also faces charges of corruption for awarding contracting to international companies, causing losses to the national exchequer.
Khaleda and 11 others face charges for allegedly causing a loss of Tk1,000 crore to the national exchequer by awarding the contract of container handling at the Chittagong port and the Dhakaâ€™s Inland Container Depot to Global Agro Trade (Pvt) Company Ltd or Gatco.
On September 2, 2007, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) filed the case with Tejgaon Police Station against Khaleda and 10 others. The case was filed under the Emergency Powers Rules (EPR).
The ACC also filed a case on February 26, 2008 against Khaleda and 15 others for causing a loss of Tk 159 crore to the state exchequer by awarding the contract to operate the Barapukuria coal mine to a Chinese company between June 2003 and June 2005. The deal was allegedly awarded to the highest bidder, instead of the lowest one.
The case proceedings in the Barapukuria coal mine case had stalled after 2012 until it was revived on August 23 this year.
The BNP chief also faces graft charges for awarding gas exploration and extraction deal to Canadian company Niko, brought on her during the military-backed government regime. Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also faced similar charges for awarding a contract to Niko before it was withdrawn in 2009 after she came to power.
Khaledaâ€™s Niko case was also revived this year after nearly nine years of hiatus.
Khaleda also faces criminal charges in two cases filed over an arson attack in February of 2015.
She stands accused in a case with Gulshan police station under the Explosives Act, one with Khulna police station, alleging that she planned acts of sabotage. Investigations are under way in these cases.
A sedition case was filed on January 25 last year, alleging that she had defamed the Liberation War with her remarks about the number of martyrs during the 1971 war.
In 2016, Khaleda Zia got bail in connection with five cases for killing a passenger in an arson attack on a passenger bus in Jatrabari and Gulshan.
Harassment or justice?
The BNP chairperson has claimed she has long been subjected to harassment through these cases.
She made the comment during her defence in the Zia Orphanage Trust graft case before the makeshift court of Special Judge-5 at Bakshibazar on October 19.
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir alleged that the government is trying to weaken their party and demoralise Khaleda Zia using the state machinery.
â€œThe government has issued the warrant for the arrest of Khaleda Zia in a false case, using the court to pursue its political vendetta,â€ he claimed.
The BNP leader alleged that the government has long been trying to eliminate the opposition parties, including BNP, with its repressive actions and misrule, to remain in power indefinitely.
According to Khaledaâ€™s lawyer and BNP standing committee member Moudud Ahmed, the cases were filed in several places countrywide only to harass her.
He said punishment in the cases was a long way away.
BNPâ€™s Assistant Secretary for International Affairs Rumeen Farhana told the Dhaka Tribune that the cases had no merit, however if the government handed down any punishment with a political motive, then they had no option but to seek a stay order from the court.
She said â€œI donâ€™t think that Khaleda will get any punishment.â€
Khaledaâ€™s lawyer Sanaullah Mia told the Dhaka Tribune that out of respect for the laws and the constitution, BNP was tackling the allegations through legal processes.
ACC lawyer for High Court Khurshid Alam Khan said the government has strong evidence against Khaleda Zia.
â€œIf we can prove them in court, then Khaleda will face the highest punishment.â€
He however refused to elaborate on the evidence.
Awami League Presidium member Kazi Zafarullah told the Dhaka Tribune that the law would proceed on its own course and denied that Awami League had any influence over the process. â€œWe have nothing to do about this issue,â€ he added.
Khaleda, the three-time prime minister of Bangladesh, was arrested by the army-backed government at the end of BNPâ€™s 2001â€“2006 term. Incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was also arrested at that time.
After the Awami League formed a government by winning the December 2008 general elections, the BNP-led four-party alliance became the main opposition in parliament.
The Awami League won the election again on January 5, 2014. The then BNP-led 18-party alliance refused to participate, demanding the restoration of the caretaker government system.