Dhaka – Former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has been sentenced to five years in jail for embezzling funds meant for orphans, officials said on Thursday.
The 72-year old politician was transported to Dhaka central jail after a special court handed down the verdict in a case filed in 2008 during an army-backed caretaker administration.
Khaleda, also the chief of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, was convicted of misappropriation of 21 million taka from a charity named after her slain husband Ziaur Rahman, who was a military chief turned president of the country.
Her son Tarique Rahman, now exiled in the United Kingdom, and four others were sentenced 10 years in jail for transferring the funds to personal account from Zia Orphanage Trust.
Md Akhtaruzzaman, judge of the special court set up in Dhaka’s central Bakhshibazar area, passed the verdict in a crowded court after Khaleda reached the court more than three hours behind the schedule.
The court also asked the authorities to collect the misappropriated funds and attach them with the public exchequer.
Khaleda, a two-time prime minister of the country, is the first head of the government convicted in graft cases after Hussain Muhammad Ershad.
The swindled funds were a Kuwaiti grant sent for Bangladeshi orphans during Khaleda’s 1991-96 tenure as prime minister. The Trust was formed later formed to accommodate the funds, and according to investigators they were not used for the purposes of the orphans.
“We have proven the allegations in the court of justice, and the court passed the verdict,” said prosecution lawyer Mosharraf Hossain who argued for life in prison term for all the accused.
But the court took Khaleda’s social status, health condition and age into consideration for the punishment, he said referring to the judge.
The Anti-Corruption Commission filed the case on July 3, 2008, accusing Zia, her son Tarique Rahman and four others of embezzling the funds.
Defence lawyer Mahbub Uddin Khokon said Zia had no involvement with the funds. “We have been deprived of justice. We will challenge the verdict in the higher court,” he said.
The BNP rejected the ruling as politically motivated.
“It is a personal and political vengeance of the prime minister,” BNP leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi Ahmed said, calling on party activists to scale up peaceful protest across Bangladesh.
The verdict is a reflection of the government’s ill intention to keep the BNP chief away from the next general election, said party general secretary Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
He announced nationwide demonstrations for Friday and Saturday to protest the verdict.