Two Bangladesh courts issue arrest warrants for opposition leader Khaleda Zia

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives to meet with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations in New York on Sept 21, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (AFP) - Two courts in Bangladesh issued warrants on Thursday (Oct 12) for the arrest of opposition leader and former premier Khaleda Zia, a move her party said was politically motivated ahead of elections expected next year.

The move came after the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched a crackdown on the opposition, arresting leaders and supporters of Ms Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

One of the warrants relates to a failure to respond to a court summons in a defamation case, Dhaka's chief prosecutor Abdullah Abu told AFP.

The second was issued by a special anti-graft court after Ms Zia failed to attend a hearing in a long-running case relating to the alleged embezzlement of funds meant for an orphanage, Mr Abu said.

Earlier in the week, another court had ordered Ms Zia's arrest on charges she incited the firebombing of a bus in 2015.

It is not the first time that a court has issued orders to arrest Ms Zia, currently on a visit to London where her son lives, but police have not acted on previous warrants.

Political scientist Ataur Rahman said he believed this time could be different.

"There are several reasons. One is to derail the party as it tries to step up protests and build momentum for the next polls," he said. "Secondly, to deprive it of its leadership and third is that the government is sending a message that it is very much in control."

Bangladesh is widely expected to hold a general election next year, the first since polls in 2014, which the BNP boycotted over fears they would be rigged.

That allowed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's party to win without even contesting most of the parliamentary seats.

Since then, opposition officials say tens of thousands of their activists and supporters have been arrested and prosecuted by the government.

Ms Hasina's secular government has faced criticism from opposition politicians for its handling of the Rohingya crisis, which led to a huge influx of refugees into the impoverished country.

Pro-opposition lawyers have also accused her of pressuring the chief justice, a major critic of the government, to go on a long leave of absence that some say he may never return from.

The warrants come days after police arrested the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamist party and a key BNP ally, on charges of planning an act of sabotage.

Jamaat called a nationwide strike on Thursday to protest the arrests of its leaders, but it was not widely observed and passed off peacefully.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.