A Bangladeshi court issued an arrest warrant on Wednesday morning against two-time former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia for failure to attend hearings of corruption charges against her.
There are now fears that the arrest of Zia — who is chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), that is leading a 20-party alliance currently waging protests against the government — may intensify ongoing violence in the country.
Judge Abu Ahmed Jamadder issued the warrant in a court in Dhaka, after refusing a bail plea from Zia's defense, which had asked for more time, citing her sickness and security concerns during the current political unrest. "We are going to challenge this order by going to a higher court," defense counsel advocate Sanaullah Miah told VICE News on Wednesday evening.
In two corruption cases against her, Zia is charged with embezzling a total of $680,000 during her second tenure as the premier of the country in 2001-2006.
Zia, along with three of her aides, are accused of misappropriating nearly $404,000 from the Zia Charitable Trust, named after her late husband and former president of the country Ziaur Rahman. Rahman was assassinated in 1981. The case was filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) of Bangladesh in 2011.
In the second case, also filed by the ACC, Zia is accused of leading a group of five people, including her eldest son Tarique Rahman, who is presently in the United Kingdom, for embezzling nearly $276,000 from the Zia Orphanage Trust, also set up in Rahman's memory. If found guilty, Zia can be jailed for life.
Zia called for mass protests across the country and demanded fresh elections after a disputed vote in 2014 after being confined to her office in Dhaka's upmarket Gulshan area since January 5.
The ongoing violence since then has led to the deaths of more than 100 people across the country through arson attacks and clashes. Nearly 50 other people, mostly opposition activists, have been killed extra-judicially, according to human rights organizations.
Miah alleged that the cases against Zia are "politically motivated," while BNP spokesperson Sayrul Kabir Khan told VICE News of his "shock" at the arrest warrant. "This is an indirect attempt to stop the ongoing protests by arresting our main leader," he said.
Lead prosecutor Mosharraf Hossain denied that the cases are politically motivated, however. "She appeared in court on just seven dates out of 63," he told VICE News. Hossain pointed out that as the BNP leader was absent from the hearings 56 times, the court issued the warrant while scrapping the defense's plea for bail.
Yet Zia's defense has pointed out that she could not attend the hearings due to the present confinement in her office and the lack of safety in public. After being indicted in the cases last year, Zia attended court on December 24. But a skirmish broke out at the court premises.
Authorities blamed Zia's activists for starting the chaos in order to hamper the trial process. Khan alleged, however: "The attack was initiated by miscreants who were waiting for her to arrive at the court on that day. Even though they were photographed by the media, the authorities have not arrested any one of them."
Since then, Zia has skipped four hearing dates, including today's, citing security concerns and sickness. Hossain pointed out that, according to Bangladeshi law, an accused needs to appear in court to seek bail in order to avoid arrest.
The arrest warrant against Zia came just hours before law enforcement officials produced Mahmudur Rahman Manna, a prominent political figure, at court.
Two days earlier, two leaked telephone conversations, one between Manna and a BNP leader, and another between Manna and an alleged former army officer, made media headlines.
In the conversations, Manna, who is also a former student leader, had allegedly discussed the present political situation and said he wanted to meet with serving army generals to discuss a possible military revolt.
According to his family, Manna was detained by detectives in plain clothes at a relative's house in Dhaka on Tuesday morning. After appearing in court on Wednesday afternoon, Magistrate Mahbubur Rahman granted police a 10-day remand order to interrogate Manna for trying to incite a possible military takeover.
Earlier on Tuesday, Manna, convener of citizen's group Nagarik Oikya, had said that his conversation was being misinterpreted.
Since it gained its independence in 1971, Bangladesh has faced two successful coups and suffered at least 19 failed ones. Through his citizens' group, Manna has time and again urged for dialogue between BNP and the ruling party, the Awami League.
Iftekhar Ahmed Babu, central committee member of Nagarik Oikya, told VICE News that the group will continue to urge dialogue as a peaceful solution to the country's present political stalemate.
Media in Bangladesh had reported that Manna wanted killings at Dhaka University to destabilize the government. Claiming that the statement was being misinterpreted, Babu added that the citizens' group does not support violence, stressing: "We have already enjoyed acceptance amongst the public for our political stance."
Babu alleged that the leaked telephone conversations are part of a "twisted conspiracy" to accuse Manna.