Bangladesh opposition chief Khaleda Zia was ordered Monday to appear in court to answer a sedition charge, in another blow to the beleaguered former premier which will likely anger her supporters.
The chief metropolitan magistrate’s court accepted a case filed against the 70-year-old for questioning the official number of deaths during Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan in 1971.
Zia was ordered to appear in the Dhaka court on March 3 over a speech delivered in December in which she said there were “controversies” over the numbers killed.
Her lawyer, Khandker Mahbub Hossain, said the case brought by a pro-government lawyer should be dismissed as there was “no element of sedition” in Zia’s comments.
“Under the relevant law, sedition takes place if anybody attempts to depose the government or makes a statement provoking the people against the government, but Zia has not done so by her statement,” he told reporters.
The government says three million people were killed in the war when then East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. Independent researchers however say the overall death toll was much lower.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government set up a war crimes tribunal in 2010, paving the way for prosecution of opposition leaders for atrocities committed during the struggle.
Four politicians have since been convicted and executed and about a dozen leaders of an opposition alliance have been found guilty.
The convictions have triggered deadly violence, with some 500 people killed, mainly in clashes between opposition activists and police.
The government maintains the trials are needed to heal the wounds of the conflict, but the alliance says they are an attempt to eradicate its leadership.
“This is a case of political vengeance,” a spokesman for Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, said in reaction to the court’s decision.
Zia faces 10 years in jail if convicted of sedition. She is already facing five corruption cases and is being prosecuted for a series of anti-government marches last year.
Zia, a two-time former prime minister, argues that all of the cases are politically motivated and aimed at keeping her out of politics.
Hasina’s government also launched a major crackdown on Zia’s party last year, arresting hundreds of activists over deadly anti-government violence.