Amid heightened security across Bangladesh and nervous tension, the court on Thursday convicted the 72-year-old of embezzling Tk 21 million in foreign donation for an orphanage trust.
Khaleda’s son and presumed political heir Tarique Rahman and four others were handed down 10 years’ imprisonment.
The others are former BNP MP Quazi Salimul Haq Kamal, former principal secretary to the PM Kamal Uddin Siddique, BNP founder Ziaur Rahman’s nephew Mominur Rahman and businessman Sharfuddin Ahmed.
The convicts, except for Khaleda, have also been slapped with a fine of Tk 21.07 million each.
Khaleda, whose military dictator husband had founded the BNP, has been found guilty of a criminal breach of trust by a public servant under the Bangladesh Penal Code.
Punishment under this provision can go as high as life imprisonment.
The court said in its verdict that the former prime minister received a lower sentence considering her ‘age and social status’.
Khaleda, who was on bail, reached the court minutes before 2pm as her supporters clashed with the police on the streets of the capital Dhaka.
Defying police orders barring gatherings in Dhaka for Thursday, hundreds of BNP supporters poured out onto the streets as the party chief headed to court.
As soon as they reached the city’s Kakrail, the police used tear-gas to disperse the supporters, who retaliated by hurling stones and brick chips at them.
A clash broke out and eventually the police resorted to charging batons.
Khaleda’s motorcade, however, passed through.
BNP supporters in the port city of Chittagong and northeastern metropolis of Sylhet clashed with police during demonstrations immediately after the news of the verdict.
Protests and scuffles have also been reported from some other parts of the country.
Clad in her signature off-white chiffon sari, Khaleda sat on a chair next to the judge’s desk.
Former MP Kamal and business Sharfuddin were brought to court from jail, before Khaleda’s arrival.
Khaleda’s son Tarique, former bureaucrat Kamal Siddqiue and Mominur have been tried as fugitives from justice.
He has several court warrants for his arrest.
Dhaka’s Fifth Special Judge Md Akhtaruzzaman started delivering the 632-page verdict at 2.15pm. He read out a summary of the verdict before the sentencing and the whole process took some 15 minutes.
Security forces led away Khaleda, minutes after the verdict.
Describing the verdict as ‘dictated’, defence counsels said the court did not elaborate why Khaleda has been convicted and sentenced.
Chief defence counsel Khandaker Mahbub Hossain said the verdict was ‘designed to keep Khaleda out of the general elections’.
“We will take the matter to the High Court and hope to get justice there,” he told the media outside the court.
“The government has unjustly sent Khaleda Zia to prison,” he said at a media briefing at the BNP headquarters
The prosecution said they were happy with the verdict even though the sentence was lighter than they had expected.
“It should have been more, but we are satisfied as the trial has finally ended,” said Mosharraf Hossain Kajal, one of the counsels for the Anti-Corruption Commission.
In jail, with conviction
In her political career spanning more than 30 years, Khaleda had spent time behind bars, but this is the first time she has landed in jail with a conviction.
She was the second Bangladesh head of government after military dictator HM Ershad to end up in prison on corruption charges.
However, the execution of the sentence will be halted once a bail petition is moved at the High Court, clearing her to stand in the polls.
Zia Orphanage Trust graft charges
The ACC started the case with Dhaka’s Ramna police in July 2008 after the military-installed caretaker regime took over the previous year.
The former prime minister was already in jail after scores of politicians, including her arch political rival and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, were arrested by the interim administration that had declared a state of emergency.
The national anti-graft agency had named seven people in the case, including Khaleda and her son Tarique.
The others were former MP Kamal, ex-principal secretary Kamal Siddique, Ziaur Rahman’s nephew Mominur Rahman, businessman Sharfuddin, Gias Uddin Ahmad and Syed Ahmed alias Sayeed Ahmed.
A year later, when the ACC pressed charges in court in August 2009, it dropped the names of Gias and Sayeed.
Investigators said Gias has been living in the US with his family for long and his involvement was not found while no individual by the name of Sayeed Ahmed could be traced.
During her 1991-1996 stint as prime minister, Khaleda had opened an account with the state-owned Sonali Bank under the title of ‘Orphanage Fund’, they alleged.
On Jun 9, 1991, a foreign organisation wired Tk 44.5 million in donations to the account through the Saudi Commercial Bank, according to the case documents.
Two years later, the fund was allocated to the Zia Orphanage Trust, which was formed by Tarique, his deceased brother Arafat Rahman Coco and their cousin Mominur.
The ACC said all rules were bypassed in forming the Trust and the address used for it was the Dhaka Cantonment residence of Khaleda.
The fund later went to the Trust’s Bogra and Bagerhat branches.
The ACC says in 2006, Tarique and Mominur withdrew the funds at the behest of Khaleda and used it for fixed deposit receipt schemes with Prime Bank.
Former MP Kamal and the other suspects withdrew the fund to invest on other avenues, but not for orphans, according to the graft watchdog.
The ACC had described the Zia Orphanage Trust as a ‘non-existent’ organisation used as a front to embezzle the foreign donations.