Supporters of Bangladesh’s largest opposition party have been demonstrating across the country since mid-November, demanding former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia be allowed to travel outside the country for medical treatment.
A seven-day countrywide protest organized by the student wing of Zia’s Bangladesh National Party ended on December 4.
Doctors treating Zia said November 28 that she has advanced cirrhosis of the liver and that it would be difficult to save the life of the 76-year-old opposition leader if she were not immediately allowed to travel abroad for treatment.
Zia, who was sentenced to a 10-year jail term on a 2018 corruption conviction, is barred by the government from traveling outside Bangladesh.
Leaders of Zia’s party are urging the government to revoke the ban.
For decades, Zia and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, chief of the ruling Awami League party, would alternate in government with metronomic regularity. They have been each other’s archrival for years and were called the “Battling Begums” of Bangladesh.
Since 2009, when Hasina became prime minister a second time, her party has won all national elections and she has remained in power for the past 12 years.
In February 2018, Zia was convicted of embezzling $252,000 in foreign donations for a Bangladeshi orphanage trust. She was sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment. Later, following a prosecution appeal, a higher court increased the jail term to 10 years.
Zia’s followers say the charge and the conviction were politically motivated.
Zia's jail term was suspended by the government in March 2020 and she was released from jail on parole, in view of the risk of her being infected with COVID-19. The sentence was suspended on the conditions that she would not be able to leave the country and must receive any medical treatment in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Law minister Anisul Huq said last week that the existing law stipulates that the government can suspend the execution of a sentence, “with conditions or without any conditions.”
"[While suspending her sentence] we attached the condition that she would not be able to go abroad. We also added that she would receive medical treatment staying in Bangladesh. She is indeed free. She is not in the government custody,” Huq said inParliament, after a BNP member of the parliament urged that Zia be freed and allowed to go abroad for her treatment.
The law minister is not speaking the truth, said exiled BNP leader AKM Wahiduzzaman.
“The team of the doctors said, Begum Khaleda Zia urgently needs to undergo a medical procedure in an advanced liver care facility abroad. Does she have the freedom to go out of Bangladesh for medical treatment? No, she is not allowed to travel abroad. She is out of jail. But, she is not free, actually,” Wahiduzzaman, a former university teacher in Bangladesh, who fled to Malaysia in 2016, told VOA.
According to her personal physician, Zia is diabetic and suffers from kidney, heart, liver and other ailments. She has recovered from COVID-19, which she was diagnosed with five months ago. Her health recently worsened, and she was admitted to the critical care unit of a private hospital in Dhaka in mid-November.
After examining Zia last week, a medical board of five doctors said at a media briefing that she had advanced-stage cirrhosis of the liver.
“If she does not undergo TIPS right now, she is likely to suffer internal bleeding again soon,” Dr. Fakhruddin Mohammad Siddiqui, chief of the board, said November 28. He was referring to a medical procedure called transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt, which helps to stop bleeding from a cirrhotic liver.
Dr. Mohammad Samsul Arfin, another member of the board, said TIPS is a highly sophisticated medical procedure that is not available in Bangladesh, He said it is done in a few advanced medical centers, which are located in the U.K., United States and Germany.
Hasina has so far rejected pleas from Zia’s family and the BNP to let the former prime minister go abroad for treatment.
She has done “quite much” to help ill Zia, Hasina said.
“I have allowed her to go out of jail, stay at home and receive medical treatment. Is this already not quite much?” Hasina asked.
Hong Kong-based rights activist Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman said the justice mechanism of Bangladesh has been subjugated and has turned into an oppressing tool in the hands of the government.
“The systemic denial of access to justice for the hundreds of enforced disappearances and few thousand extrajudicial killings clearly indicate that the entire criminal justice system serves the purpose of the incumbent regime,” Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Asian Legal Resource Center, told VOA.
Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar says that in the past 12 years, close to 600 dissidents have disappeared and remain untraced in Bangladesh. The group also said around 3,500 extrajudicial killings have occurred.