Protests in Bangladesh after ex-PM Zia’s health deteriorates

Opposition supporters stage protests demanding Khaleda Zia be allowed to travel abroad for treatment.

Zia, a three-time prime minister is serving 10-year jail term [File: Andrew Biraj/Reuters]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Supporters of Bangladesh’s main opposition party have organised protests across the country demanding that their jailed leader be immediately allowed to go abroad for treatment.

Khaleda Zia, the 76-year-old leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the main rival of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has been serving a 10-year jail term for corruption.

She has been barred by the court from travelling abroad after she was convicted on corruption charges three years ago – a conviction the BNP says was politically motivated.

The opposition leader was admitted to the critical care unit of a private hospital in the capital Dhaka early this month after her health condition “significantly worsened”.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP secretary-general, said on Tuesday that Bangladesh’s healthcare system has “no further treatment” for Zia and she needs “treatment abroad immediately”.

Zia, a three-time prime minister of the South Asian nation, is suffering from liver disease, chronic kidney disease and a heart ailment in addition to her existing conditions of rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes, according to her personal physician Dr AZM Zahid Hossain.

Thousands of opposition activists have staged multiple demonstrations, rallies and hunger strikes to press home their demands, with Secretary-General Alamgir warning of waging a campaign seeking the fall of the Hasina led-government if Zia is not allowed to travel.

The government has directed the police to remain on “red alert” across the country so that no individuals can create “chaos and unwanted situation”.

‘The law will decide’

Prime Minister Hasina seemed unmoved by the demands, saying that the law of the land would decide whether Zia would be allowed to go abroad.

Bangladesh''s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and ex-PM Khaleda Zia have been referred to as the ‘Battling Begums’ due to their vicious political rivalry [File: Stephanie Keith/Reuters]

“I have done whatever I can for Khaleda Zia,” Hasina said, adding that using her power, she has allowed Zia to serve her sentence at home instead of jail and receive the required treatment within the country.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the government in March last year granted Zia temporary release from jail at the request of her family. But she still cannot leave Bangladesh.

Law Minister Anisul Huq said the government does not lack compassion for Zia.

“We understand the sentiment of her [BNP] party people and we are genuinely thinking of taking a decision about her treatment abroad. But we have to find out whether legal recourse allows such action,” he told Al Jazeera.

But BNP leaders and activists strongly believe Zia is a victim of Prime Minister Hasina’s “personal vengeance”.

They have been referred to as the “Battling Begums” (Begum is a South Asian term that refers to a Muslim woman of high rank) due to their vicious political rivalry, as they alternated power with metronomic regularity since 1991 when the Zia-led BNP came to power following the first elections after nearly a decade of military rule.

The Hasina-led Awami League (AL) got the better of the BNP in 1996. But Zia made a comeback in 2001.

The AL has not lost an election since coming to power in 2008. Subsequent elections, however, have been marred by opposition boycotts and accusations of widespread vote-rigging.

Dhaka-based BNP activist Kamrul Ahsan Nomani said not allowing Zia to receive treatment abroad is “just an act of personal vengeance” by Hasina.

“She [Zia] was convicted in a kangaroo court and now they say she can’t be allowed to go abroad for treatment as there are legal barriers. This is just a joke.”

“The real truth is, Begum Zia’s treatment abroad isn’t being denied because there are legal problems. The whole country knows that it is being denied because Prime Minister Hasina doesn’t want it,” Nomani added.

Australia-based Bangladeshi writer and political commentator Faham Abdus Salam says refusing treatment to a 76-year-old critically ill woman is a “new low” for the current Bangladeshi administration.

“Like any third world dictator, Sheikh Hasina will lavishly compensate loyalty and ruthlessly crush her opponents,” Salam told Al Jazeera.

He claimed that many senior Awami League leaders are in favour of allowing Zia to travel for treatment, “but they are genuinely afraid of Hasina’s vengeance and will not say a word in public”.

Source: Al Jazeera