Bangladesh's main opposition leader Khaleda Zia is being tried on charges of embezzling 650,000 USD. Given the stark divisions in society, a conviction may trigger a wave of violence, analyst Michael Kugelman tells DW.
The trial against Zia, the leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and a two times prime minister, began on September 22 after the country's highest court rejected appeals by the politician's lawyers to suspend the proceedings. Zia was excused from attending the first hearing in the capital Dhaka on security grounds, but the trial - which has already been delayed numerous times - was adjourned until October 13.
Zia and three of her aides are accused of embezzling more than half a million dollars from two charitable funds. The former premier could face life in prison if found guilty, according to prosecutors. The 69-year-old was charged just weeks after incumbent PM Sheikh Hasina was re-elected in a January 5 general election which the centre-right BNP and its 18 opposition allies boycotted and denounced as a farce. Zia and her co-defendants say the charges against them are politically motivated.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that there are many indications that suggest the trial against Zia may be politically motivated as a conviction would help the current government sideline the BNP not just now, but also into the future, by putting both Zia and her possible successor out of commission.
DW: What can you tell us about the embezzlement charges being faced by Khaleda Zia?
Michael Kugelman: The details, as is typically the case in such situations, are rather sketchy. But what we do know is that she has been charged with embezzling large amounts of money from two charities. Whether she is guilty of these charges is unclear.
Kugelman: 'There has been growing concern that the current government is trying to put in place a one-party state'
But what is very clear is that Bangladesh's political culture is so widely polarized that it wouldn't be surprising if the ruling party was using these charges as a pretext for weakening Zia and her party.
Ever since the ruling Awami League was reelected this year in a poll many viewed as fraudulent, there has been growing concern that the current government is trying to put in place a one-party state in which the opposition is fully marginalized. Putting the opposition leader on trial - and in jail - would be one giant step toward this outcome.
Who else is also among the accused?
There are about five other people accused. Most significantly, one of them is Zia's eldest son, and therefore her likely successor as party chief. This is important because if this is a politically motivated process, then the government is trying to sideline the BNP not just now, but into the future, by putting both Zia and her possible successor out of commission.
Prosecutors have said the former premier, who also faces several other charges, could be jailed for life if found guilty. How likely is a conviction and what impact could it have on Zia's political career?
It's a total wildcard right now. A conviction would obviously be devastating for Zia and for her party - and more so if her son is jailed too. At the same time, imprisonment would make her into a legendary and heroic figure for her die-hard followers, and it could also spark considerable unrest in a country already on political tenterhooks.
Zia has a notoriously poisonous relationship with PM Sheikh Hasina an enmity which dates back three decades. To which extent could the legal proceedings be politically motivated?
I think there is a very strong reason to believe that there are political motivations here. The history of enmity, the rather vague charges, the timing - coming right after a contested election - all suggest there could much more than legal factors at play here.
What impact is this trial likely to have on society and the already polarized political situation in the country?
It's hard to imagine that Bangladesh's political environment could get any more fraught, but this is exactly what could happen. We could see more street protests and considerable unrest- and perhaps violence as well. The problem is that at this point, there are no influential "third way" leaders that can step in and try to neutralize, or at least arbitrate these furious levels of polarization. And that's bad news for stability prospects.
'Imprisonment would make Zia into a legendary and heroic figure for her die-hard followers,' says Kugelman
How do you see the political situation developing in Bangladesh in the coming months, especially after parliament recently amended a law that enables it to sack Supreme Court judges?
Outsiders tend to forget about Bangladesh until unrest flares up again. After the January election, which calmed things down, there are indications that political tensions could be heating up again. Very difficult times could be ahead for Bangladesh. And despite all the other things going on in the world, it's important that the international community pay attention.
Michael Kugelman is a senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.