Bangladesh's ex-PM jailed for graft; plans to appeal

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia was jailed on Thursday for corruption but plans to appeal her five-year term, her lawyer said, as thousands of supporters took to the streets to protest her innocence.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) supporters shout slogans as they set fire during a protest in a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Khaleda, 72, her son and aides were convicted of stealing 21 million taka ($253,000) in foreign donations received by an orphanage trust set up when she was last prime minister, from 2001 to 2006, lawyers said.

“She was given a shorter term considering her health and social status,” Judge Mohammad Akhteruzzaman said, as he passed sentence in a packed courtroom amid tight security.

Khaleda plans to appeal against her conviction, lawyers said, and is likely to be freed on bail during that process.

“We didn’t get justice. We’ll go to the higher court,” Khandker Mahbub Hossain, the leader of Khaleda’s legal team, told reporters.

After the verdict, Khaleda was escorted to the central jail in the capital, a three-storey red-brick structure with barred windows surrounded by trees, to begin serving her sentence in two rooms set aside for her, jail officials said.

Khaleda’s son, Tarique Rahman, and four others were jailed for 10 years at the end of a case that lasted nearly 10 years.

Khaleda and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) say the charges are part of a plot to keep her and her family out of politics. Party leaders said more than 3,500 supporters have been detained over the past few days.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda, both related to former national leaders, have dominated politics in poverty-stricken Bangladesh for more than two decades, and they have nursed a long and bitter rivalry as they .

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Hasina’s Awami League came to power for a second consecutive term after a bloody parliamentary election that was boycotted by Khaleda’s party.

The renewed tension between them raises the specter of a long, destabilizing spell of unrest for Bangladesh and its economy. Khaleda is due to run in parliamentary polls set for December and can still do so if an appeal is pending.

BNP senior leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi denounced the sentence, calling it “an attempt to eliminate the opponent”.

Her son Rahman, who lives in exile in London, was convicted in a case of money laundering in 2016.

Her party announced a plan for protests on Friday and Saturday against what it called a “biased and compromised” ruling.

“This verdict will deepen the country’s existing political crisis and will damage people’s faith in the judiciary,” said Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of the BNP.

Khaleda’s conviction “proves that Bangladesh has the rule of law and that no one is above the law,” Law Minister Anisul Huq told reporters after the decision.

“She can challenge the ruling in the High Court after getting a certified copy of the verdict,” he said. “She can also seek bail.”

Five people were injured when police fired rubber bullets at protesters in the northeastern city of Sylhet, witnesses said. Earlier, police used tear gas to disperse protesters who supported Khaleda, and authorities cut bus and ferry links into the capital and deployed thousands of police to quell unrest.

Television broadcast images of motorcycles set on fire.

Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Larry King