A Dhaka court yesterday acquitted Tarique Rahman, elder son of BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia, in a money-laundering case involving Tk 20.41 crore.
In the same case, the court sentenced his friend and business partner Giasuddin Al Mamun to seven years in prison and fined him Tk 40 crore. The jail term is effective since November 2009 when he was shown arrested in the case.
The judgment comes amid heightened political tension ahead of the general election.
Reading out the verdict, Judge Motahar Hossain said, "He [Tarique] did not conceal any information of this transaction in his wealth statement submitted to the Anti-Corruption Commission on June 7, 2007. So, the charges against him could not be brought under the Money Laundering Prevention Act-2002. Therefore, he is acquitted."
ACC Commissioner Mohammad Shahabuddin rejected the verdict, saying: "Tarique and Mamun had equal footing in the crime. So, legally there was no scope to differentiate."
The commission would appeal against the judgment, and so would Mamun's lawyers.
The verdict has taken the BNP by surprise. The main opposition party has all along been critical of the judiciary throughout the trial, but yesterday the defence lawyers hailed the judge, saying he had delivered the verdict with courage while working under a "subservient judicial system".
The ruling Awami League, however, did not officially react to the verdict.
It was the first judgment in one of the 16 cases, including the gruesome August 21 grenade attack cases, against Tarique, senior vice-chairman of BNP. He was arrested on March 7, 2007, during a crackdown on corruption by the military-backed caretaker government.
After securing a parole, he went to London in September 2008 for treatment, and later obtained bail in other cases as well.
He was tried in absentia as he did not appear before the court even after the court issued arrest orders for him twice. The court yesterday withdrew those orders.
Being a fugitive, the 48-year-old could not appoint a lawyer to defend him. Nor did he get one under state arrangement, as only those facing capital punishment get state counsel. The highest punishment in this case is seven year's jail term.
Mamun, who is in jail since March 26, 2007, was present in the court yesterday. He is also serving 20 year's jail term in three other cases.
Earlier on June 23, 2011, Tarique's younger brother Arafat Rahman Koko was sentenced to six years' rigorous imprisonment for laundering over Tk 20 crore to Singapore. Koko, a fugitive, faces three more cases.
Their mother, Khaleda Zia, has five corruption cases against her.
As soon as the verdict was delivered in a packed courtroom, around 100 pro-BNP lawyers burst into cheers and chanted slogans in the courtroom.
Their jubilation soon spread all around the court premises where several hundred lawyers brought out a procession and chanted anti-government slogans. They showed "V" signs and distributed sweetmeats.
The prosecution expressed dissatisfaction over the acquittal of Tarique. Pro-government lawyers were angry, and they blamed prosecutors Mosharraf Hossain Kajol and Kabir Hossain for the outcome.
After the judge left the courtroom, pro-Awami League lawyers hurled abuse at the two, saying, "grab them, grab them". They also accused the prosecutors of taking bribe, a claim Kajol and Kabir outright rejected.
The pro-government lawyers also criticised the judge for the "unexpected verdict."
Some of them agitated outside the courtroom and at one stage started kicking the doors of the courtroom.
Anisul Huq, chief counsel for the ACC, told reporters: "I am definitely not satisfied with the verdict. But I accept the judgment of the court.
"I still think, on the basis of our evidence, there was no scope for the charges going unproven."
Security was tight and atmosphere tense in and around the court premises since early morning.
A prison van brought Mamun from Kashimpur Jail to the court in Old Dhaka around 10:00am. The court sat around 11:55am.
Delivering the verdict, the judge said Khadiza Islam, chairman of Nirman Constructions at Banani, was awarded the work of an 80-Megawatt power plant at Tongi in 2003.
When she did not get the work order even after 8-10 months, she contacted Mamun, who assured her of securing for her the work order, but demanded money for the job.
Khadiza told Mamun that she would only pay after getting the work order. But Mamun forced her to deposit $7,50,000 at Citibank N.A. in Singapore on August 1, 2003, the judge added.
During the trial, Khadiza told the court that she had given the money in consultancy fee, not in bribe.
Mamun, too, claimed that he received the money in consultancy fee, though he had no such firm, said the judge of the Special Judge's Court-3.
So he did not take the money with an honest intent and the government was in the dark about the amount, the court said, announcing Mamun guilty of siphoning off the money.
The judge noted that Tarique spent $54,000 from Mamun's account, which Tarique mentioned in his wealth statement and cannot be therefore charged under the law.
But Mosharraf Hossain Kajol said it was not clear to the prosecution how the court acquitted Tarique and on what basis.
"Tarique as a fugitive had no lawyer to contest the case and he did not submit any such paper like his wealth statement to the court. But still the court showed such documents. How did he [the judge] get those documents?" he told The Daily Star.
Jahedul Islam Koyel, one of Mamun's counsels, claimed that Debra Laprevotte, a supervisory special agent of the FBI, submitted some papers, including Tarique's wealth statement, during her testimony in the case.
The ACC filed the case in October 2009 against the duo for laundering TK 20.41 crore to Singapore between 2003 and 2007. The charges were pressed in July 2010 and the trial began in September 2011.
In 2007, the Singapore government returned the money, which the court said should be spent on the development work of the country.