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Imprisonment of Begum Zia—enforcing law or endangering next elections?

Ziauddin Choudhury

The drama surrounding the sentencing and incarceration of Begum Zia came finally to an end Thursday.
Her conviction was no surprise given the political theatrics from both sides—the ruling party and the
opposition—that kept the media and people at large occupied during last few weeks. The surprise,
however, came from the opposition leader herself, her apparent acquiescence and acceptance of the
sentencing without a firework of defiant speeches addressing either the court or her supporters outside.
Instead she quietly left for her next abode in the company of police, while her heavily upset party
leaders sobbed outside the court premises lamenting her sentencing.

This writing is not about Begum Zia’s conviction or on its appropriateness. This is also not to give voice
to the critics who question our law’s apparent failure to hold accountable and punish scores of others
who embezzled billions in public funds in the past, but spent enormous resources to prosecute and
convict an ex-Prime Minister for a relatively smaller amount. This is also not to question the political
motivation of the timing of the sentencing since it is just a few months away from the next general
elections. Misappropriation of funds is a crime, the amount is irrelevant.

The main reason for this writing is the international concern for transparency in governance, rule of law,
and democratic process in the country. This concern has been expressed every time Bangladesh had
elections because in those periods the government failed to demonstrate a due process for those who
participate in the elections, whether they were electioneering or they were casting votes. People on
both sides of the spectrum, voters on one side and the candidates on the other, found them often in a
battlefield. Free and fair elections were promised, but were never delivered. Intimidation, brute force,
voting booth capture, and often outright rigging featured our elections for much of the period of our so
called democratic existence. In some instances our government invited (during general elections)
international groups to monitor our elections, but their movement was often restricted or limited to
places that could present a more favorable view of the process. Unfortunately, the last parliamentary
elections were so unique that more than half the electoral constituencies did not require any elections
avoiding the need for any external monitoring.

A democracy does not survive by simply rhetoric or by keeping the appearance of democracy. The
dilemma of many developing country democracies is how to keep up the appearance of democracy by
not yielding to other requirement of rule of law and transparency. The latter two become very
important for free and fair elections. Because without rule of law and transparency in governance the
participants in the democratic process cannot be sure the elections will be fair and free. The elections
are not free or fair when a candidate can be thwarted at will by one means or another, fair or foul. The
elections are not fair when voters are intimidated or stopped from voting, and they have no recourse to
law. The entire process becomes murky or highly questionable when the authorities that are supposed
to help the election participants deny them their rightful access to law.

For people in authority or power it is tempting to cling to it, and they find it difficult to let it go when
people turn against them in an election. A short history of our country gives us enough instances where
a ruling party tried to preserve its hold by manipulating the elections. Manipulation of elections in the
traditional manner described earlier is therefore not new. What is new, however, is emasculation of the
opposition in a manner that deprives it of its strength and fighting power.

We have seen evidences of such proactive depopulation of opposition in some African, Middle Eastern
or even East Asian countries in the past. In some cases, the leaders of opposition have been tried,
imprisoned or even exiled on charges of treason, corruption, or morality (such as Anwar Ibrahim of
Malaysia). In many cases such maneuvers worked leading to the continuance of the ruling party for
years. These countries held elections, but every election returned the sitting President or Head of
Government to power. On the one hand such political maneuvering helped the country grow
economically, but on the other hand concentration of power in one person or one party led to
disintegration of the country and breeding of a virulent opposition that ultimately led to the fall of the
leader and destruction of the country’s economy.

Only future can tell to what length these protests and preventive actions will go. But if past is any guide
we can only say that if “we have seen the future, and it looks more and more like our past”. Begum Zia
may have quietly lodged in jail now, but her party and her supporters who are by no means a small band
who will be so quiet, judging from the near riotous conduct on day of the judgment. Her party has
already announced a series of protests covering the entire country. From the government side it seems
it will not be simply watching these demonstrations, but meet these toe to toe. Already the districts are
flooded with police and para military forces to counter opposition protests. To add to this, workers of
the government party and opposition are ready to battle each other.

A stone thrown cannot be retrieved, but a political move can be retracted. Begum Zia’s conviction may
have been based on evidences that proved to the court her guilt. But it is possible that an appeal may be
more favorable. We do not know how the government will react to such an appeal. But this gives an
opportunity for both parties to ponder over their own stands and review them in country’s interest.

Internationally Begum Zia’s sentencing in a case that has been hanging for over ten years may be
interpreted as aimed at shutting the main opposition from participation in the next elections. This may
not be an unreasonable interpretation given the one-sided elections of 2015. What the international
community does not want to see is another controversial election looking us in the face. We hope that
this incarceration does not lead to another bitter duel between the parties, but it gives both parties
agree on a course for inclusive elections with acceptable concessions for each other.

Our country has come a long way to progress and economic development. It is necessary that we have
political stability to sustain this level or go higher. Shutting opposition from participation in election is
definitely not the right way to sustain our claim to respect democracy. A way can be found out of this
impasse if there is still goodwill in the government and opposition.