BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia lost another legal battle yesterday, as the High Court doubled her five-year jail term, handed down by a lower court in the Zia Orphanage Trust graft case.
The former prime minister landed in jail on February 8 after being sentenced by a special court that day.
She challenged the verdict on February 20 with the HC, seeking acquittal. Weeks later, the Anti-Corruption Commission, which filed the case in 2008, filed a revision petition with the HC, seeking enhancement of her punishment.
The HC verdict came a day after the same special court sentenced Khaleda to seven years in jail on charges of abusing power during her second term (2001-2006) to collect and spend Tk 6.52 crore for different purposes, including purchase of 42 kathas of land in the capital to set up a Charitable Trust after
her late husband's name.
While sentencing Khaleda in the Zia Orphanage case in February, the special judge, Md Akhtaruzzaman, considered her age and social status and sentenced her to five years in jail. Khaleda is now 73.
The five other accused in the case, including her son Tarique Rahman who is now BNP's acting chairman, were awarded 10 years' imprisonment for misappropriating over Tk 2.1 crore that had come from a foreign bank in grants for orphans.
But the same judge on Monday awarded Khaleda and three other accused of the Zia Charitable Trust graft case equal punishment -- seven years' jail term for each.
And after yesterday's HC verdict, all convicts in the Zia Orphanage Trust case will also serve equal time in jail.
In the short verdict, the HC did not mention why it enhanced Khaleda's punishment to 10 years. It will be clear once the full verdict is released.
"She is the main accused in the case. She was sentenced to five years' imprisonment by the lower court. But our plea was to sentence her to life," ACC lawyer Khurshid Alam Khan told reporters, explaining the longer prison term.
The HC and the lower court verdicts come amid BNP's call for Khaleda's release before the general election due by the end of January. It also comes just two days before the long-demanded dialogue between the government and opposition parties.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday invited the Jatiya Oikyafront, a platform of BNP and several other parties, for talks at the Gono Bhaban tomorrow.
The BNP said it was “stunned and surprised” by the HC judgment.
"We think the verdict was given with a political motive, and we totally reject it,” BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told reporters at the party's central office.
"People are now doubtful of the outcome of the dialogue between the ruling Awami League and the Jatiya Oikyafront,'' he said.
Zainul Abedin, a counsel for Khaleda and also president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said enhancement of punishment by the HC in a criminal case was rare. Usually, the HC commutes the sentence in such cases.
They will decide on filing an appeal with the Appellate Division of the SC in the coming days, he said.
CAN KHALEDA JOIN POLLS?
The HC verdict has fueled the ongoing debate about whether Khaleda can contest the upcoming election.
Article 66 (2) (d) of the constitution says, “A person shall be disqualified for election as, or for being, a member of Parliament who has been, on conviction for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release.”
According to Attorney General Mahbubey Alam, the BNP chief cannot join the race unless her convictions are scrapped and she is acquitted.
ACC lawyer Khurshid Alam echoed his views.
However, Law Minister Anisul Huq referred to a previous split verdict delivered by the Supreme Court on the matter.
In that verdict, one judge said a convict can contest the polls if the punishment is stayed by the court in appeal. The other judge said a person is disqualified from seeking office after the trial court verdict, the minister said.
"I think the court will decide whether she [Khaleda] can contest the next polls," he told journalists in Narayanganj.
Mirza Fakhrul himself thinks Khaleda became somewhat disqualified from running after the verdicts, given the lengthy legal process.
She has 30 days to appeal against each verdict. Also, to be able to join the polls campaign, she needs to secure bail to come out of prison.
In case she is not on the ballot paper, it will be for the first time since she took the helm of the party 35 years ago. She led the BNP to win the polls in 1991, 1996 (February) and 2001. Under her leadership, the party lost two elections in June 1996 and in 2008 and boycotted one election in January 2014.
She contested for five seats in 1991, 1996 and 2001, and three seats in 2008, winning all.
NOT ABOVE THE LAW
In the verdict, the HC bench of Justice M Enayetur Rahim and Justice Md Mostafizur Rahman also upheld 10 years' imprisonment and Tk. 2.1 crore in fine for Qazi Saleemul Huq, a former BNP lawmaker from Magura, and Sharfuddin Ahmed, a businessman.
The court did not say anything about the three other convicts, including Tarique, as they did not file any appeal against their conviction. They are all fugitive.
Two others are Mominur Rahman, Tarique's cousin, and Kamal Uddin Siddique, former principal secretary.
There was no lawyer for any of the convicts in the court.
Earlier in the day, Khaleda's lawyers moved the Appellate Division bench headed by Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain, seeking its directive on the HC to postpone the verdict.
The petition was rejected as it was not filed in a “proper way,” said Khurshid Alam.
In his reaction to the verdict, Mahbubey Alam said it was a message for politicians. “It signals that no one can remain above the law if they commit crimes.”
The Supreme Court Bar Association, which is dominated by pro-BNP lawyers, will boycott the High Court Division and the Appellate Division from 9:00am to 1:00pm today protesting the verdict.