Bangladesh Court Orders Arrest of Opposition Leader

Arrest warrant for Khaleda Zia could spark further political turmoil in the country

Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia speaks to journalists from inside her office after police put barricades around Ms. Zia’s offices in January.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia speaks to journalists from inside her office after police put barricades around Ms. Zia’s offices in January. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

DHAKA, Bangladesh—A court issued an arrest warrant for former prime minister and current opposition leader Khaleda Zia on Wednesday, raising fears of further political turmoil in the South Asian country.

A judge ordered Ms. Zia’s arrest after she failed to attend a hearing in a corruption caseinvolving a charitable trust she set up in memory of her late husband, the assassinated president Ziaur Rahman. In charges filed in 2009, prosecutors said Ms. Zia embezzled money from the Zia Orphanage Trust when she was prime minister between 2001 and 2006.

Ms. Zia has denied the charges against her. Khandoker Mahbub Hossain, a lawyer for Ms. Zia, said on Wednesday that the case was politically motivated. “This is political victimization in the guise of a trial,” he said.

The country has been gripped by political unrest since early January, when Ms. Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies called an indefinite blockade of road, rail and river transport, demanding early elections. More than 100 people have died in the violence, nearly half of them in arson attacks on public transport, according to the police.

The government and the opposition have traded blame for the turmoil. Prime MinisterSheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009, has said Ms. Zia will be held accountable for the deaths. A murder case has been filed against the 69-year-old opposition leader, accusing her of ordering the attacks on public transport.

Ms. Zia has denied ordering the attacks, saying her movement is peaceful. She has blamed government provocateurs and security forces for the violence. She has accused Ms. Hasina of trying to create a one-party state by destroying the opposition. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies boycotted the last elections in January 2014, claiming the result would be rigged.

Ms. Zia’s lawyers said on Wednesday that the judge had rejected their pleas to exempt their client from personal appearances for security reasons. Clashes broke out between ruling-party activists and opposition supporters when Ms. Zia last attended a hearing at the special court in south Dhaka in December.

Ms. Zia hasn’t left her office in Dhaka’s northern Gulshan neighborhood since Jan. 5, when the police locked the main gate and barricaded the road with sand-laden trucks. Although police say the restrictions have now been lifted, Ms. Zia’s aides say they fear for her safety if she leaves the walled compound.

Separately on Wednesday, police announced the arrest of Mahmudur Rahman Manna, the head of the Nagorik Oikkya party and a fierce critic of the government, nearly 24 hours after his family said he had been picked up by plainclothes policemen. His lawyers filed a habeas corpus motion on Tuesday, demanding the authorities produce Mr. Manna before a court. A police spokesman initially denied he had been detained.

On Wednesday, police spokesman Monirul Islam said Mr. Manna would be charged with sedition for “inciting army rebellion.” In two phone recordings posted online this week, Mr. Manna can be heard speaking to a BNP leader and an unidentified man about meeting with army officers over the political crisis.

In the current, highly charged political atmosphere, some supporters of the government are arguing that the recordings suggest a conspiracy.

Mr. Manna wasn’t reachable Wednesday for comment. A lawyer for him confirmed that it is Mr. Manna in the recordings, but said “his comments were taken out of context. There was no conspiracy.”

A posting on Mr. Manna’s Facebook page titled “Two Conversations” said Mr. Manna didn’t incite violence and that, “as a politician, I [am] prepared to meet with a lot of people.” The posting also says that no such meetings took place.

In recent times, Mr. Manna’s Nagorik Oikkya party has tried to position itself as a third force independent of the ruling Awami League party and the BNP. He accuses the government of violating his privacy by illegally recording and releasing his private conversations. The government has denied involvement.

Source: Wall Street Journal