Syed Badrul Ahsan
A warrant of arrest issued for BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia has left her and her supporters indignant. That reaction is uncalled for. There were valid grounds for the issue of the warrant. Of the sixty three times Begum Zia was required to be present in court, she appeared for only seven. And the case, one may recall, has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with monetary corruption, as related to the Zia Orphanage Trust. And lest anyone come forth with the wild allegation that the case was filed by the Awami League-led government to harass the former prime minister, let it be noted that it was on the watch of the last caretaker government that inquiries were launched into the working of the Orphanage Trust in question.
By refusing, on a number of pretexts, to appear in court, the BNP Chairperson has demonstrated a shocking, clear defiance of the law. Any other citizen --- since all citizens are equal before the law --- would have been heavily penalized by the judiciary for such defiance. And none of those citizens would have had the temerity not to appear in court even once or twice. There is, as we know only too well, the many instances of leading politicians both in the Awami League and the BNP, demonstrating their respect for the law by appearing in court when summoned and seeking bail. Former minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui surrendered himself and was marched off to prison. Men like Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir did not look for excuses to stay away from appearances in court. Editors of newspapers, especially in the era of the last government led by Begum Zia, when they had questionable cases filed against them by leading BNP figures, went to court seeking bail. Even today, editors sued by individuals have appeared in court to show their respect for the law.
The point is simple: Begum Zia, having been head of government more than once, having been in politics for more than three decades, has now opted to pursue a course that is a dangerous defiance of the judiciary. She has been trying to convey the wrong impression that she is a victim of the politics of vendetta. Her efforts to persuade people into believing that a popular movement will cause a turn-around in her fortunes will certainly be there. But politics has nothing to do with the court. The fact that a warrant of arrest has been served on her is evidence of the brazen manner in which she has defied the law. She has given short shrift to the judiciary, in much the same way in which she has tried portraying to her followers and to the outside world that the maladies Bangladesh goes through today have to do with the government. She and her followers have kept up the refrain of the government's holding office in illegal manner despite the constitutional validity of the last election. And yet she and her fans have no qualms about ignoring the court on a matter which relates to alleged corruption and which has nothing to do with politics.
It all adds up to a dilemma, for Khaleda Zia and for the country. For the BNP chief, this cavalier attitude to the law undermines the rule of law. For the country, the image of a former prime minister who surely would like to be back in power but who does not care about the law sends out a terrible message to all citizens. If Khaleda Zia can ignore the law and can perhaps get away with it, why must the common citizens of this country be expected to uphold the rule of law? The lesson is obvious: morality and justice are today taking a beating at the hands of the BNP Chairperson.
Begum Zia will not appear in court but will certainly dare the government to take her into custody. For the court, the dilemma is acute: having served legal notice on the BNP chief, having issued a warrant of arrest, it cannot wait endlessly for the former prime minister to come before it and ask for bail. Sooner or later it will become imperative for the court to have its decision implemented. When that happens, when the head of a major political party is hauled to court, it will not be a pretty sight. Citizens' respect for her will depend on the degree of respect she has for the law.
The lines are clearly drawn in black and white, with nothing of the grey coming in. For Begum Zia, the need is to bear in mind that as a former head of government, as the head of a major political party, she has a responsibility to the nation to uphold the law and thereby uphold democracy. By refusing, especially in the past two months, to heed the call of reason --- to rescind her call for a blockade, to put an end to hartals, to empathise with families who have lost their beloved ones to petrol bomb violence --- she has set a bad precedent. In the first place, she has given the impression, a misplaced one, that her kind of politics can push an elected government from power with the accompanying danger that it can be replaced by an extra-constitutional regime. In the second, she has made it likely for opposition parties in the future to replicate the violent agitation she has inaugurated in the country, with little concern about the country. In the third, by defying the court, she has effectively sought to undermine the rule of law and so passed on the thought that it is all right to ignore the judiciary, despite the risks attendant on such behavior.
Why does she do all this? Why must her politics dwindle to insensitivity regarding the emotions and sentiments of the nation? Perhaps she will answer these questions. Perhaps she will not. Politics which turns into plain criminality calls for tough handling by the law-enforcing agencies. Any leniency or failure to take action against law breakers will only encourage others to violate the law and defy the courts. No government and no court can tolerate such behavior. Begum Zia is certainly not above the law. She cannot, therefore, be allowed to challenge the court. Any such defiance is a provocation, indeed an incitement, to public disorder.