“The instance she set up by abusing the power of a prime minister to raise money through criminal activities in favour of a personal trust is unexpected.”
Observes the court in its verdict
BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia was convicted in Zia Charitable Trust corruption case and sentenced to seven years' rigorous imprisonment by a special court in her absence yesterday.
Around nine months ago, she landed in jail being sentenced to five years' imprisonment in Zia Orphanage Trust case by the same court. The High Court today will deliver its verdict on her appeal in this case.
The two trusts were set up when she was the prime minister -- the orphanage trust during her 1991-1996 rule and the other in 2001-2006. Both were named after her late husband and former president Ziaur Rahman, also the founding chairman of the BNP.
In the wake of BNP's continuous demand for her release ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election, the verdict in another graft case dealt a fresh blow to the party.
The BNP chief, who has been fighting legal battles over the months to come out of jail, was granted bail in the orphanage case. But she could not secure bail in all the three dozen cases she is facing.
She was on bail in the charitable graft case until yesterday and now has to move the High Court and challenge the verdict.
In this case, the Special Judge Court-5 found her guilty of abusing power as the prime minister during her second term to collect and spend Tk 6.52 crore for different purposes including purchase of 42 kathas of land in the capital for setting up Zia Charitable Trust.
The court delivered the verdict two hours after the Appellate Division rejected Khaleda's petition seeking permission to file an appeal against a High Court order that allowed holding the trial in her absence.
Khaleda appeared before the special court set up inside the old central jail on September 5 and told the court that she was ill and unable to come time and again. She also told the court that it may punish her as it wishes. Since then, she did not appear before the court.
In response to a petition filed by the prosecution, the court on September 20 announced that it would continue the trial proceedings in her absence. After a week, her lawyers moved the High Court challenging the trial court's decision.
On October 14, the HC rejected her petition and allowed the trial court to continue the trial proceedings in her absence. Two days later, the trial court fixed October 29 for pronouncing the verdict.
Khaleda's lawyers then moved the Appellate Division against the HC order. The apex court heard her prayer on Sunday and fixed Monday (yesterday) for delivering its order.
While sentencing Khaleda in the Zia Orphanage case in February, the special judge, Md Akhtaruzzaman, considered her age and social status and sentenced her to five years in jail although five other accused in the case including her son Tarique Rahman were awarded 10 years' imprisonment. Khaleda is now 73.
The same court yesterday said Khaleda should be given the highest punishment for abusing state power so that none in future dare do it.
She abused the power to form a trust while she was the prime minister and collected funds for it from people including her own party men for personal use, it added.
"The instance she set up by abusing the power of a prime minister to raise money through criminal activities in favour of a personal trust is unexpected,” observed the court in 402 pages verdict.
"Therefore, the court thinks Khaleda should be given stringent punishment," it said, "so that none in future staying in high office feels inspired to engage in such activities."
The verdict was delivered amid tight security in and around the court premises. People's movement was restricted in the area and only prosecutors and journalists were allowed to enter the court room.
The court sentenced Khaleda as the prime accused and three others on charges of abetting her to commit the offence. Harris Chowdhury, political secretary to the then PM Khaleda, and his assistant personal secretary Ziaul Haq Munna, and Monirul Islam Khan, assistant personal secretary of then Dhaka city mayor Sadek Hossain Khoka were awarded the same jail term.
Khaleda and three others were also fined Tk 10 lakh each, and in case of default, they will have to spend six months more in jail.
The court also asked the authorities concerned to confiscate the 42 kathas of land in favour of the government.
Ziaul and Monirul were present in the dock yesterday. Harris Chowdhury, who was also sentenced to life in August 21 grenade case on October 10, remains fugitive.
Khaleda has been staying in BSMMU since October 5 for her treatment.
"We presumed beforehand that the court will deliver a dictated verdict. We did not feel any necessity to be present in the court to hear the judgement," Masud Ahmed Talukder, one of the lawyers of Khaleda, told The Daily Star over telephone.
Asked, if they will file an appeal with the HC against the verdict, he said they will decide the next course of action in consultation with party leaders and senior lawyers.
The BNP at a press conference strongly criticised the verdict.
"To keep the BNP chairperson away from politics and elections, the Zia Charitable Trust corruption case verdict has been delivered illegally against her," said BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir.
According to article 66 (2) (d) of the constitution, a person shall be disqualified for election as, or for being, a member of parliament who has been, on conviction for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release.
Talking to journalists, Mosharraf Hossain Kajal, chief prosecutor of the Anti-Corruption Commission that filed the case against Khaleda and others seven years ago, expressed satisfaction at the verdict.
The ACC lodged the Zia charitable case against Khaleda and three others with Tejgaon Police Station on August 8, 2011.
According to the case statement, the former prime minister and three others abused their power and raised funds for the trust from unknown sources.
The court framed charges against Khaleda and the other three in the case on March 19, 2014.
Yesterday, Judge Akhtaruzzaman in the verdict said in mutual collaboration, the four accused realised over Tk 2.17 crore from unknown sources for establishing Zia Charitable Trust.
There were irregularities in spending another amount of over Tk 1.24 crore in the process of purchasing land in the name of the trust.
In a week starting from January 13, 2005, Tk 7.81 crore was deposited in the trust's bank account, but the money was not used for any charitable purpose, and even the purchased land was not mutated in the trust's name at the time of filing the case, said the court.
Khaleda, as the first managing trustee, opened the account with the PMO branch of Sonali Bank on January 1, 2005, and within a week from January 13, Tk 7.81 crore was deposited in the account in phases, said the judgement, adding, "The prosecution has been able to prove the charges beyond reasonable doubt."