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Khaleda Zia asks Bangladesh court to halt trial

world Updated: Apr 20, 2014 12:34 IST

Bangladesh opposition leader Khaleda Zia was set Sunday to launch a last-ditch legal bid to avoid standing trial for corruption, a case she says would destroy her already weakened centre-right party.

The two-time former premier had been expected to go on trial from Monday, after being indicted last month on charges she and associates embezzled more than $650,000, accusations that could see her jailed for life.

Zia's lawyers have called the charges politically motivated, aimed at keeping her out of politics and destroying her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which has vowed to topple arch rival Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government.

The lawyers are seeking an order on Sunday from the High Court to halt the trial which was set to be held in a special anti-corruption court in Dhaka, arguing that Zia has been charged unlawfully.

"The charges framed against her were not done in accordance with the law," her lawyer, Moudud Ahmed, a former law minister, told AFP.

Prosecutors say Zia and three of her co-accused siphoned off 31.5 million taka (about $400,000) from a charitable trust named after her late husband Ziaur Rahman, a former president who was assassinated in 1981.

She is also accused of leading a group of five people, including her eldest son Tarique Rahman, who now is in London, in embezzling 21.5 million taka ($277,000), funds which were meant to go to an orphanage set up in memory of her late husband.

The charges date back to Zia's last term as prime minister from 2001 to 2006 and can carry a life sentence, prosecutors have said.

Zia's BNP has threatened to hold nationwide protests if the court rules on Sunday that the trial should go ahead.

Attorney General Mahbubey Alam rejected the defence's claims of political motivation, saying they were tactics to buy time.

"The charges were framed lawfully and transparently," Alam said, adding that a separate high court judges' panel has already ruled there is a prima facie case against Zia.

"Everything was on the record. Can the then-PM avoid responsibility?" Alam said, referring to Zia's role in the alleged embezzlement.

He added her lawyers have already sought to delay the case at least "34 times".

Zia, who first became premier in 1991, has a famously poisonous relationship with Hasina -- an enmity which dates back three decades.

The BNP and its allies boycotted general elections held in January which they denounced as a farce.

Nearly 200 people died in political violence in the run-up to the polls as the opposition and security forces fought pitched battles.

Zia was kept under de facto house arrest for more than a week ahead of the elections.

Hasina was overwhelmingly re-elected in what was effectively a one-horse race after the BNP and 18 other opposition parties refused to field candidates over rigging fears.

Police detained thousands of opposition officials and supporters and brought charges of violence against tens of thousands of BNP followers during and after the polls.

Zia spent nearly two years behind bars in 2007-08 when both she and Hasina were detained by a military-backed government as part of a crackdown on corruption. Both women were eventually freed without charge.