Bangladesh to free jailed ex-PM for medical treatment

DHAKA • The Bangladeshi government has said it is freeing opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia from jail for six months so that she can get medical treatment.

Law and Justice Minister Anisul Huq said on Tuesday that the move came after a brother and a sister of Zia - who has been in prison for two years - appealed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to let her arch-rival fly to London for treatment.

Ms Hasina and Zia are bitter rivals whose families have dominated Bangladesh's politics since independence in 1971.

But Mr Huq said Zia, 74, would not be allowed to go to another country. "On the basis of the application and having been directed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia's conviction has been suspended," he said, adding that she is freed "on condition that she remains in her Dhaka residence to receive treatment and does not go abroad".

There was no immediate comment from her family or her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Sentenced to 10 years in jail on graft charges, Zia also faces nearly three dozen other outstanding cases. The BNP says the charges are politically motivated to keep her out of politics.

Her lawyers have had repeated bail applications rejected. They have argued that she could die in prison without proper treatment.

A recent leaked medical report on her health said her rheumatoid arthritis was becoming increasingly serious. She has already had two knee replacement operations.

"As a result of combined active disease and accompanied damage, she is... in a crippled state and largely dependent on assistance for her day-to-day activities," it said.

Ms Hasina took over as prime minister from Zia in 2009 and has been in power since.

The United States, which has warm ties with Bangladesh, said it welcomed the decision to free Zia and pointed to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The global pandemic "needs leadership that is compassionate and prioritises national unity", Ms Alice Wells, the top US diplomat for South Asia, wrote on Twitter.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2020, with the headline 'Bangladesh to free jailed ex-PM for medical treatment'. Print Edition | Subscribe