Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia left her office last Sunday (5) for the first time in three months, in a sign of easing tensions after deadly protests had plunged the country into a political crisis.
Zia, 69, was taken by car to a court where she surrendered and secured bail in two graft cases against her. Security was tight with hundreds of police and border guards surrounding the court.
Authorities had confined her inside her office in an upscale district of Dhaka on January 3. The action came after she threatened to lead a massive anti-government rally through the capital on the first anniversary of a disputed national election.
A judge issued an arrest warrant against the former prime minister in late February after she repeatedly failed to attend hearings in the graft cases.
“It’s the first time in more than three months she has stepped out of her office,” Shamsuddin Dider, a spokesman for Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said, adding that she was granted bail in both graft cases.
Her lawyer, Sanaullah Miah, told reporters she had been unable to appear for previous court hearings “for health and security reasons”. Her next court appearance was set for May 5.
Zia had threatened to lead the rally in the capital on the first anniversary of the general election on January 5, 2014.
The BNP and a 20-party opposition alliance, which she leads, had boycotted the election because it was not held under a neutral caretaker administration, as in the past.
Police padlocked her office’s front gate, used pepper spray on her as she tried to leave the compound, and parked trucks loaded with sand and bricks outside the gate to block the exit.
Security was relaxed weeks later and authorities said she was free to leave – although the BNP said she was still confined to her office. Restrictions on entering the office compound remained. More than a dozen people were arrested as they tried to meet Zia or bring in food for her.
While she was confined to her office, a defiant Zia urged supporters to enforce a nationwide transport blockade. The stoppage was intended to force her rival, prime minister Sheikh Hasina, to quit and pave the way for a new general election under a neutral administration.
Around 15,000 opposition supporters as well as dozens of BNP senior officials have been arrested as part of a crackdown by Hasina to end the unrest. It has left more than 120 people dead as opposition activists firebombed hundreds of buses and trucks and police responded by firing live rounds.
The political unrest over the past three months cost at least 49 billion taka ($630 million/ £423m) or 0.55 per cent of the country’s gross domestic products, Centre for Policy Dialogue, a leading private think-tank, said last Sunday (5).
It said it had analysed 11 major sectors of the economy, including agriculture, transport, education and garments, which accounted for 80 per cent of the country’s exports.
Zia is accused of embezzling $650,000 (£436,208) in two corruption cases involving charitable funds during her last term as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006. She and leaders of her party have denied the charges, saying they are politically motivated.
She is also facing charges of instigating the latest violence.
The UN and the EU, Dhaka’s biggest trade partner, have urged the two sides to hold talks in order to end the crisis.