THE government’s decision to hold the trial of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party chairperson Khaleda Zia in the Zia Charitable Trust corruption case inside the old central jail on Nazimuddin Road in Old Town of Dhaka is worrying as such a trial inside the old jail could hardly, in effect, constitute a public trial. The decision, on this count, is in breach of both the constitution and the laws. It is not that there have been no precedents of such trial in this land that now is Bangladesh. But they all were conducted during the martial law. The first such trial was of Bangladesh’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the Agartala Conspiracy Case in 1968 during the martial law of Ayub Khan. Although the accused, Sheikh Mujib and 34 others, were kept in the Dhaka Central Jail, they were moved to the courtroom into the secured borders of the Dhaka cantonment for the trial proceedings. The second such trial of Abu Taher, a military officer and decorated war hero, in 1976 during the martial law of General Ziaur Rahman, who was Bangladesh’s seventh president, in a courtroom inside the Dhaka cantonment.
The Awami League has time and again rightly criticised the holding of trial in such a manner. We at New Age subscribe to the view that the Awami League used to hold about such trials that are not public. After so many years, the government that the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, presides over making a decision to hold the trial of Khaleda Zia in a highly secured place where the access of general people to such courtroom, is, indeed, impossible. Although the Anti-Corruption Commission’s public prosecutor seeks to say that the courtroom in the old central jail should be an open court and people and the press would have access to the court, it is anybody’s guess how far the old Dhaka central jail, which remains heavily guarded and would have security heightened further for the trial, could ensure an easy access of the general people to the court in question. The government is reported to have decided in July 2014 to hold the trial of a case filed under the Explosive Substances Act in connection with the rebellion at the headquarters of the border forces in a makeshift courtroom inside the Dhaka Central Jail, but the government retreated on the decision to avid controversy and the trial continued in the makeshift courtroom set up at Bakshibazar in Dhaka.
While the government must not hold the trial of Khaleda Zia in a courtroom that would be a travesty of a public trial in terms of fairness, in breach of the constitution and the laws, setting a precedent of holding trials in such a manner would only leave scope for misuse or abuse of the ominous provision, as rights activists and criminal law experts fear, in politically motivated cases against politicians. The government must stand back on this decision.