In a hastily arranged press conference, the law minister Anisul Huq today told reporters that the government has decided to postpone for six months the jail sentence of Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister and leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
To be clear, BNP has long sought the release of its leaders, firstly arguing that the corruption cases which led to her imprisonment had been politically motivated, and then simply pleading mercy from the government on humanitarian grounds after courts repeatedly denied its pleas to dismiss the cases or grant her bail. The government seemed unperturbed even when a leaked medical board report described her being “in a crippled state.”
So why, at a time when the nation faces a national health emergency, has the government decided to release her? Although the government said it took the decision on humanitarian grounds, the decision may very well have something to do with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis facing the country.
Covid-19 and Khaleda Zia
Already social media are abuzz with cryptic and sarcastic posts implying that Khaleda Zia would be released now so as to get exposed to the disease. The 74-years-old former prime minister, if contracted with the virus, faces grave health implications since she was diagnosed with severe diabetes and asthma.
Indeed, anyone would prefer own home to jail under any circumstances, but the old Dhaka jail, where Khaleda Zia was the sole prisoner until now, would probably be the safest option for her if she was to avoid any contract.
Counterintuitively, that Khaleda Zia herself would want to avoid public greetings at this moment might also have been considered by the government when it decided to release her. If I were the governing party, I would not want my opponent to be able to use her release from jail as a grand political victory to be celebrated with much fanfare.
The chaos that Covid-19 brings makes it a very opportune moment because few people would give a damn about her being released when they are busy with their own survival plans.
All sinister possibilities aside, however, the government would not want to face a scenario in which Khaleda Zia contracts the virus under its own watch, and take the blame. At a time when the crisis may spiral out of control, the government might be wanting to relinquish a political chip which might as well become a burden at this stage.
Also, there are rumours that the old Dhaka jail could be converted to a large makeshift hospital for Covid-19 patients who need hospitalization after its sole occupant is let go of.
For BNP, few reasons to celebrate
And, finally, it goes without saying that BNP has few reasons to celebrate this moment. The key to understanding the decision is that it is a postponement of the sentence, meaning she would still probably have to spend these six months in jail retrospectively, if and when the government decides to send her back to prison again.
Also, the fact that she would not be able to leave the country, as per the conditions attached to the temporary release and given the situation of the outbreak, makes the deal less attractive for BNP.
The biggest casualty in this entire fiasco is probably the people’s perception of justice. The government persistently claimed that it had nothing to with Khaleda Zia being convicted and that it could do nothing to secure her release; after all, it is a decision that only a court could take.
In its decision to free Khaleda Zia temporarily, the government invoked Section 401 (1) of The Code of Criminal Procedure, which states:
When any person has been sentenced to punishment for an offence, the Government may at any time without conditions or upon any conditions which the person sentenced accepts, suspend the execution of his sentence or remit the whole or any part of the punishment to which he has been sentenced.http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-75/section-21619.html
If that is the case, does it not send a signal that the executive branch of the government could overturn any decision of the judiciary? Khaleda Zia’s corruption charges went all the way up to the Supreme Court. If the law ministry and interior ministry, with the stroke of a pen, could supersede the decision of the highest court of this land, how much should we trust our leaders when they insist our judiciary is independent?