In a development that may have far reaching implications in the year-end election in Bangladesh, a special court in Dhaka on Thursday sentenced former Prime Minister and chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia to five years in jail in a corruption case.

She was accused of embezzling funds meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust and was taken to custody after the verdict. Zia’s son and heir apparent at the BNP, Tarique Rahman, and four others were sentenced to 10 years in jail in the same case. Rahman, vice-chairman of the BNP, has been living in London for the past nine years.

Widow of former military ruler Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda Zia was Prime Minister for two terms and is the Principal Opposition party. The current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who heads the Awami League, has been in power for two terms since December 2008 and is facing strong anti-incumbency sentiments.

BNP on backfoot

According to Shyamal Dutta, Editor of Bhorer Kagoj , a Bengali daily published from Dhaka, the order of jail term to a Prime Ministerial aspirant is unprecedented in Bangladeshi politics since the return of democracy in 1990. He thinks this will put BNP on the backfoot in the elections.

It is not yet clear if Zia would be able to contest elections as appeal courts in the past have given contradictory verdicts. Former Military ruler and now the President of a small political party – Jatiya Party (Ershad) – for example was barred from contesting the 2001 general elections but was allowed in 2011.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, political observers in Dhaka said if Zia is not allowed to contest, it would be difficult for the BNP to convert the popular support into a win.

He, however, ruled out any major law and order situation in the wake of Zia’s arrest. Bangladeshi law-enforcing agencies have reportedly arrested prominent leaders of BNP and its prime Islamist ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, over the last few days, to prevent untoward situations.

Jamaat is known for its violent protests and other unlawful activities.

The police actions proved effective as not many violent protests have been reported from Bangladesh all through the day. There were, however, reports of clashes in Jamaat strongholds at Rajshahi, Sylhet and Chittagong.

Arindam Mukherjee, secretary of Kolkata-based think-tank, Institute of Social and Cultural Studies (ISCS), however, feels that the developments in Dhaka can create security concern for India as hounded Jamaat activists may cross the border for safety. “We (India) should be cautious,” he said.