DHAKA: Bangladesh's former prime minister Khaleda Zia, serving a five-year jail term in a corruption case, was today granted bail by the Supreme Court, which upheld a high court order in her favour considering her old age and health issues.
Her lawyers, however, said that the verdict was unlikely to bring the 72-year-old Zia out of prison as her bail pleas in at least five similar cases against her were pending hearing.
Court officials said a four-member bench of Supreme Court's Appellate Division headed by chief justice Syed Mahmud Hossain unanimously decided to grant bail to Zia, the chairperson of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), upholding a previous High Court order.
The bench dismissed the appeals filed by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the government challenging the High Court's bail to Zia.
Zia was sentenced to five years in jail on February 8 by a lower court in connection with the embezzlement of 21 million taka (about USD 250,000) in foreign donations meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust, named after her husband late Ziaur Rahman, a military ruler-turned-politician, during her 2001-2006 premiership.
Zia has been in the old jailhouse on Nazimuddin Road, Dhaka after she was convicted in the case.
The apex court also directed the High Court to dispose of by July 31 the hearing of Zia's appeal petition against her conviction and imprisonment in the corruption case, they said.
"We expect to secure her bail in the pending cases as well," Zia's lawyer Joynal Abedin said.
The court in February had also sentenced Zia's elder son Tarique Rahman, now in the UK, and four others to 10 years' rigorous imprisonment each, and fined them a total of 2.
10 crore taka, saying that all the convicts have to pay the fine in equal amounts.
The High Court on March 12 granted Zia a four-month interim bail, considering her age and health issues after the special court released the full verdict.
When the ACC and the State moved the apex court's Appellate Division, it suspended the bail order until May 8, allowing these two to start appeals against the bail.
Arguing on behalf of Zia, her lawyer had pleaded for the former premier's bail on the ground of her ill health and old age.
In response, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam and ACC lawyer Khurshid Alam argued that the lower court had already taken a lenient stance in handing down her the jail term due to her age, and this "lenient punishment" could not be a reason for her bail.
They had also said that Zia challenged her conviction in the High Court and "let her get acquitted there", but now she did not deserve the bail for her sickness as the medical board, which had examined her, had not recommended that she be hospitalised, which could have been the ground for her bail.
Zia's imprisonment had shook the country's political scenario ahead of the general elections in December this year.
The BNP, the main opposition outside parliament, had alleged the trial was politically motivated to debar her from contesting elections, a charge denied by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government.