DHAKA: A court in Bangladesh has sentenced opposition leader Khaleda Zia to five years in jail after convicting the two-time former premier of embezzling money meant for an orphanage.
Prosecutors were seeking life imprisonment for the head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party for allegedly embezzling 21 million taka ($252,000) through a charity trust fund.
Khaleda Zia will no longer be able to contest the general elections which are scheduled for December.
Thousands of police and paramilitary guards patrolled the Bangladesh capital on Thursday ahead of the key corruption verdict.
Police had banned street protests and rounded up what opposition figures said was thousands of their supporters in a crackdown ahead of Thursday’s court ruling in the capital, Dhaka.
Zia faced life in prison if convicted by the Dhaka court, but has consistently denied the charges, insisting “not a penny” was stolen.
A senior officer told AFP more than 5,000 police had been deployed in Dhaka and the streets of the usually congested capital were almost empty of cars on Thursday.
“We have stepped up security in the entire city,” Dhaka police chief Asaduzzaman Mia told reporters outside the court.
Hundreds of BNP supporters chanting slogans walked alongside Zia’s car as it approached the court, while pro-opposition lawyers staged raucous protests at the Supreme Court.
Authorities are on high alert for protests in the tense city, where political demonstrations by Zia’s centre-right BNP and its allies in 2014 and 2015 left nearly 200 people dead.
The BNP boycotted 2014 polls in which Hasina was re-elected but is expected to contest the upcoming general election.
Zia, 72, has repeatedly said the charges against her are politically motivated, aimed at excluding her and her family from politics.
“This is an attempt to use the court against me, in an effort to sideline me from politics and elections and to isolate me from the people,” Zia told a packed news conference on Wednesday.
BNP spokesperson Rizvi Ahmed has said around 3,500 opposition activists and officials have been arrested in a sweep by security forces ahead of the verdict.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged the government to stop what it called “arbitrary arrests and detentions”.
“The Bangladesh government’s claims to be open and democratic ring hollow as it cracks down on political dissent,” said the group’s Asia director Brad Adams.
“The government has a responsibility to prevent and minimise violence, but it needs to do so in a way that respects basic rights, not flouts them.”
Many private schools declared a holiday on Thursday in anticipation of the verdict, while several ride-hailing services announced a day-long suspension of their operations.
Police have set up check-posts at key entry points of the city in an effort to prevent thousands of rural supporters of BNP and its allies from marching to the capital.
“Dhaka is effectively cut off, people in panic,” read the front-page headline of the Bengali-language newspaper Prothom Alo.
Zia, who entered politics in the mid-1980s after her military dictator husband was assassinated in an abortive coup, also faces dozens of separate charges related to violence and corruption.
Her son Tarique Rahman, who is in exile in London, is a co-defendant in the case. He was convicted of money-laundering in 2016.
Last month prosecutors sought the death penalty for Rahman over his alleged role in a deadly 2004 grenade attack that injured Hasina.
Zia and her son were detained by an army-backed government in 2007 and spent a year and a half in detention pending trials for alleged corruption. —AFP