Is it Too Late for Bangladesh to Release its Opposition Leader for Treatment?

Many in Bangladesh and abroad are questioning the timing the country's authoritarian government chose to release the country's opposition leader Begum Khalida Zia. Is the life of Bangladesh's former prime minister in any danger?

Posted on 03/29/20
By Mohammad Zainal Abedin | Via ViewsWeek
A file photo of Begum Khaleda Zia. (Photo courtesy Daily Sun, Bangladesh)

Questions and curiosities float all around as to why Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s despotic prime minister temporarily released from prison her arch-rival and former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia through an executive orders. Many in Bangladesh and around the world are perplexed at the timing Hasina chose to temporarily release Mrs. Zia when the world is engulfed in the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Begum Zia, the ailing widow of the country’s former President Ziaur Rahman, was released on March 25, on “humanitarian grounds” on the condition that she would stay and take her treatment at home without leaving the country. Sources close to Begum Zia in Bangladesh say that she is virtually on death-bed. “She cannot move. She cannot walk. Her health is extremely bad,” one source revealed.

Hasina’s government has often been criticized by the international human rights groups of human rights abuses and stifling free speech. She and her family have been at the center of major corruption scandals since 2007. At least 15 cases of corruption were quashed against Hasina after she was elected in 2010.

In a damning statement, Human Rights Watch released a charge-sheet against Hasina’s authoritarianism in January:

In Bangladesh, people who question the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule fear they may be next in line to be killed or forcibly disappeared by security forces. When Human Rights Watch raises this with the Bangladeshi authorities, they are quick to dismiss the reports as lies made up by the political opposition.

Yet extrajudicial killings have become so established in Bangladesh that some legislators openly recommended them as a way of dealing with the country’s high levels of rape when protesters mobilized over the recent rape of a 21-year-old student. For instance, according to media reports, one legislator told parliament that “the only remedy is killing rapists ‘in crossfire’ after their confession.”

Begum Zia, 74, an uncompromising nationalist and liberal politician, is hugely popular in Bangladesh. A Bangladeshi court jailed Khaleda and three others for seven years in the Zia Charitable Trust corruption case on October 29, 2018. Zia supporters and independent jurists have questioned Begum Zia’s trail, alleging Sheikh Hasina influenced the court decision.

The irony is that while Hasina has often been accused of forcing the Bangladeshi courts to withdraw corruption cases against her, her family and her party members, she is bringing new cases against all opposition members. Begum Zia, the only potent challenger to her authoritarian rule, was always her obvious target. Hasina’s vindictive policies do not stop here. She is known fior instigating her supporters to violence, much of which is documented by independent sources. The tragic happenings of October 28, 2006 when 18 people were killed across Bangladesh are still fresh in Bangladesh’s political history. The violence occurred after Hasina  asked her cadres to march to Dhaka with oars and sticks. American Embassy in Dhaka in a report on the happenings of that black day reported:

“Sheikh Hasina, the President of Awami League, called her party activists to march to Dhaka with oars and sticks to take control of the streets of the capital. From a rally held on 18th September 2006 at the Paltan Ground in the capital, Sheikh Hasina instructed her party activists to come to Dhaka with oars, logs, and sticks:“You [the people] be ready and come to Dhaka from villages, upazilas and districts with oars, rowing poles and with whatever you have when I will call you,” Hasina instructed her coalition activists urging to build a resistance against the caretaker government of the time. Following her call, her party activists gathered in the city sparking the violence of October 28.”

“The activists of the then opposition alliance led by Awami League took to the streets, started setting fire in the markets, set vehicles ablaze and clashed with the BNP and Jamaat activists, and even with the law enforcers. Hundreds of Awami League activists carrying bamboo poles and oars paraded most city roads, chanting slogans against Khaleda Zia and Justice KM Hasan. The Awami League activists blocked almost all the city entry points in the morning and clashed with any procession of the BNP they saw…”
“… At least 18 people were killed throughout the country by the “oars and logs” attack of Awami League and its allies. At least 1,000 (throughout Bangladesh), were injured, many with bullets, in attacks by the activists of the AL led alliance.”

In the same report the American Embassy suggested:

“The government should ensure the proper and immediate trial of the offenses committed on 28 October 2006 in Dhaka and it must change its decision of withdrawal of the case filed by the victims in order to serve the people with the proper administration of justice. The illegal practice of using violence and torture to suppress the political opponents must be stopped immediately by Awami League and all other political parties. The law enforcing agencies should not tolerate such violent political activities.” (

Bangladesh’s interim government of the time filed a case mentioning Sheikh Hasina. The police investigated and charge-sheeted her after finding the accusations against her as true. She was also accused of many other cases of graft, misappropriation and other criminal charges. But after assuming power in 2008 with the blessings of India-influenced army-led government, she withdrew over 8,500 cases against her and her party cadres, by branding them as “politically motivated”. Those cases ranged from murder, arson, bombing, damaging private and public property, illegal occupation, vandalism, ransacking, etc. However, she used fake cases against Begum Zia, that led to her arrest and jailing. Resultantly, Begum Zia now faces 34 cases, while some of her party leaders and activists face over 150 cases.

The allegations against Begum Zia and subsequent imprisonment are the the outcome of vindictiveness. For Hasina, jailing her political opponents is not very difficult because much of the Bangladesh’s judiciary is compromised. Many judges in the lower and higher judiciary are her loyalists, as they are former cadres of the ruling party and have always failed to act impartially.

Timing of Begum Zia’s release:
Bangladesh watchers and analysts question Sheikh Hasina’s choice of the time. Why did she have a change of heart when the world is in panic mode, dealing with a killer pandemic? Why Begum Zia is being forced to seek treatment and home instead of going to better medical help overseas?

The answer is in Sheikh Hasina’s authoritarian style of governance. Those familiar with her vindictive nature alleged that she released Begum Zia because her life is in serious danger and may come to an end. Rumors have even been making the rounds in Bangladesh and overseas that Begum Zia might have been given slow-poison while in prison, which is pushing her towards death. “The government could not afford Begum Zia dying inside jail because that wouild bring the blame on the government and will have serious fallout,” one source in Dhaka confided, adding: “So she (Hasina) released Begum Zia to escape the responsibility.”

Multiple sources in Bangladesh said the condition that Begum Zia get treatment at home has political and legal; reasons. They alleged such an abnormal precondition was imposed as Hasina government apprehends that if Begum Zia is allowed to go out of Bangladesh, foreign physicians may find the ‘wrongs’, if any, in her body, and that will prove Hasina government’s crime. “Otherwise, there is no logic for such precondition.”

Interestingly enough, Hasina herself went to London on parole for treatment while she was detained during the caretaker government. “She wants Begum should die in her house without proper treatment, removing her biggest political challenger for the rest of her life,” the source in Dhaka concluded.


Mohammad Zainal Abedin is a New York-based Bangladeshi journalist and researcher.



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