March 12, 2018 / 8:18 AM / 2 months ago

Bangladesh ex-PM awaits bail decision as party considers poll boycott

DHAKA, March 12 (Reuters) - A Bangladeshi court is due to decide on Monday whether to grant bail to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia who was jailed last month for five years for graft, with its decision likely to have far-reaching ramifications for politics and security.

Zia is a two-term prime minister whose bitter rivalry with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has defined Bangladeshi politics for years.

Their feud hangs over the run-up to a December election with Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) vowing to boycott the polls in a protest against what it says is Zia’s unfair jailing on trumped up charges.

A court decision to release Zia could open the door to the possibility of her party’s participation in the general election, said party secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.

“Without her, the election will be meaningless and it won’t be acceptable to us,” Alamgir told Reuters.

“Her confinement will be one of the factors in making our decisions,” Alamgir said, though adding that unless the judgement against her is overturned, she would not be able to contest the election even if released on bail.

Under Bangladesh electoral rules, anyone jailed for more than two years cannot contest an election for five years.

The BNP boycotted the last polls, in 2014, in a protest against Hasina’s scrapping of the practice of having a caretaker government oversee elections.

A boycott again in December would again give the prime minister’s Awami League a clear run at power when the opposition could be benefiting from voter frustration with prices, unemployment, power cuts and anger over what many see as heavy-handed government tactics against opponents.

Another boycott would also dash any hopes of stability, and raise risks for the country’s garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of exports, which could face disruption by transport blockades in the event of unrest.

“People are coming out onto the streets,” Alamgir said, despite the detention of thousands of protesting party members since Zia was jailed on Feb. 8.

‘TOXIC’ POLITICS

At the same time, efforts to combat Islamist militants behind a string of bloody attacks in recent years risk being hampered by turmoil.

“Politics could become even more toxic,” the International Crisis Group think-tank said in a recent note.

“The government’s continued marginalisation of BNP and its forcing underground of opponents like Jamaat-e-Islami, risk sapping resources from efforts to disrupt jihadists.”

Jamaat, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party and an ally of the BNP, has been accused of inciting militancy.

It denies that and opposition parties have denounced the crackdown on Jamaat leaders as a way to silence rivals.

The BNP says the case against Zia is politically motivated by a ruling party riding roughshod over human rights and the rule of law.

“This is a totally one-party-rule here and it is totally dictatorial. Under these circumstances she’s been convicted,” Alamgir said.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, a senior member of Hasina’s party, denied that the government had any role in Zia’s conviction, and said the BNP was merely trying to score political points with its accusations.

Khan said the government’s decision to take in 700,000 Muslim refugees fleeing violence in neighbouring Myanmar was proof enough of its standing.

“Our sheltering of Rohingya refugees itself shows that the government is upholding human rights,” Khan said, referring to the persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar. (Additional reporting and writing by Krishna N. Das Editing by Robert Birsel)

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