Despite Khaleda Zia’s suspended sentence and release from jail, no news except about the coronavirus is attracting the people’s attention in Bangladesh, writes Swadesh Roy for South Asia Monitor
Like many other countries in the world, Bangladesh is now locked down against the Covid-19 virus. The citizens of Bangladesh are now worried about the effect of the pandemic on their daily life. In this situation, no country is giving any attention to political news. But sometimes, in catastrophic moments, some politically significant event happens. On March 24, such a political event happened in Bangladesh.
During a press conference called by the Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Haque, he said his ministry had decided to suspend the jail sentence of the opposition leader and Bangladesh Nationalist Party chief Begum Khaleda Zia for six months. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had urged Haque to release Begum Khaleda in view of the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic on humanitarian grounds.
According to the Bangladesh penal code (BPC), the jail sentence of any convict can be suspended on humanitarian grounds. The law minister stated that his ministry had suspended Khaleda’s sentence in accordance with Section 401/1 of the BPC. This section of the BPC permits the country’s executive branch to suspend or reduce any convict’s jail sentence.
When asked whether the exercise of this executive power was a healthy practice for the rule of law in the country and whether it hampered the sovereignty of the judiciary, Haque responded by saying, "Not at all". This section of the penal code, he said, has been used in the country for 100 years and is a soft power for the executive. But the suspension and decreased jail sentence for Khaleda are conditional, he said. From the day that she is freed, for the entire period of six months, she will have to stay in her own home; she cannot go abroad or to any hospital for medical treatment. She must only remain at home, Haque said.
Khaleda is not only an opposition party leader, but also a former Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the only head of the Bangladesh government who has been awarded a jail sentence for corruption. Corruption is a major problem in Bangladesh and began soon after the military junta took control of power in a military coup d’etat in 1975.
From 1975 to 2020 is a long way. During that period, two military and five civilian governments have run the country. However, corruption still remains a part of the government and society of Bangladesh. For the present government, this is the third consecutive term in office and they are trying to reduce corruption and establish the rule of law in every sector. The trial of Khaleda Zia was a part of that effort. Though no one in government can claim to have decreased corruption to zero levels with the trial and jail sentence for Khaleda, the trial of a former prime minister is indeed symbolic in the fight against corruption. Whether corruption has actually reduced will be determined in the future. However, it is true that during the five years of the Khaleda Zia regime, according to Transparency International, Bangladesh was awarded 'Champion of Corruption' for five years in a row.
However, despite Khaleda Zia’s suspended sentence and release from jail, no news except about the coronavirus is attracting peoples' attention. The whole country is locked down and the country’s medical system and infrastructure are not in the best of health. Bangladesh is a highly densely populated part of the world. Additionally, over the last three months, thousands of workers have returned home from Covid-19 -affected countries like Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others. Those cases have not been handled properly. Most of them didn’t maintain the regimen of home quarantine but freely mixed within the community. Also, thousands of people have gathered together for prayers, in the belief that only God can save them from anything that happens in the world. The government has not been able to motivate them adequately to stay at home during this pandemic.
The suspension of Khaleda Zia’s sentence is not a big issue for Bangladesh now. The main issue is only how best the government can tackle this pandemic, given all their limitations. The conscious people of Bangladesh are worried about the after-effects of the pandemic on the economy and their lives.
(The writer is a senior journalist and editor based in Dhaka, Bangladesh)