DHAKA – Hundreds of supporters gathered on Wednesday in Dhaka to welcome Bangladesh opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia as she was released following a lengthy jail term, ignoring a government directive to avoid mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bangladesh Jail authorities released Zia from the hospital in the capital where she had been undergoing treatment as a prisoner, a day after the government suspended her jail sentence for six months.
“She was released about 4 pm today after completing all legal formalities,” said Dhaka Central Jail Senior Superintendent Iqbal Kabir.
Zia, clad in a pink saree, joined her family members in a car after she was released amid loud slogans from activists and leaders of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
The government had agreed on Tuesday to release Zia on the condition that she would receive treatment at home and would not leave the country.
The authorities said they took the decision considering the leader’s advanced age following an appeal from her family, although rejecting their request for permission to take her to London for treatment.
Zia, 74, had been serving prison terms amounting to 17 years since 2018, when she was convicted in two separate corruption cases. She has been treated at a Dhaka hospital for multiple ailments since April last year.
The leader was convicted on charges of graft and abuse of power dating back to her terms as prime minister between 1991-1996 and 2001-2006.
The Bangladesh High Court rejected in February her latest bail application to facilitate an advanced treatment in the United Kingdom for her chronic arthritic disease.
In February 2018, a special court had sentenced Zia to five years in jail for misappropriating funds worth $200,000 meant for an orphanage.
After an appeal by the Anti-Corruption Commission, the High Court doubled her prison sentence from five years to 10 years on Oct. 30, 2018, just a day after she was sentenced to another seven years in jail in a separate graft case.
Prime Minister’s Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League had secured a landslide victory in general elections held on Dec. 30, 2019, while the BNP could only secure seven seats and alleged fraud and persecution by the ruling disposition.
The BNP and the Awami League have taken turns in power in the country since 1991, except for a brief period of military rule between 2006-2008.