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Friday, September 12, 2008
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Freed Khaleda to join talks, contest polls

Asks govt to hold JS polls first, lift emergency

BNP chief Khaleda Zia waves to the crowd gathered in front of BNP central office at Naya Paltan in the capital yesterday following her release.Photo: STAR

BNP Chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia was freed yesterday from her yearlong detention amid huge celebration and a grand reception given by thousands of party leaders, activists and supporters.

Just-released Khaleda announced to join the dialogue with the government and take part in the upcoming elections but asked the caretaker government to hold the stalled parliamentary elections first and withdraw the state of emergency.

Later at a press conference, she also announced that her eldest son and the party's Senior Joint Secretary General Tarique Rahman would remain out of politics for two to three years as he would be abroad for treatment.

"You must be thinking that I am very happy that I am free now. But I am not because we as well as the country are not well," a weeping Khaleda told the jam-packed press conference at the party's central office at Naya Paltan yesterday afternoon.

Khaleda, who was detained by the joint forces on September 3 last year, walked out of the makeshift special prison on the parliament building complex at about 11:30am upon getting bail in all the four corruption cases filed against her.

The BNP and its allies have since been demanding her release along with that of Tarique, who was released on bail on September 3.

With Khaleda's release, both the former prime ministers of the country detained in the caretaker government's much-hyped anti-corruption drives are now freed and back to their folds.

Their release is considered important for bringing an end to the deadlock with the government and ensuring their participation in the parliamentary elections slated for December.

More than 100 high-profile politicians, mostly from the BNP and the Awami League (AL), landed in jail in the government's anti-corruption drive. However, despite the drive's aim of curbing corruption and bringing reforms in politics, many of the detained corruption suspects were released in the past two months.

Although the government tried to keep the two top leaders at bay, it eventually reached "understandings" with both Khaleda and Hasina in the "interest" of a credible election and transition to democracy.

AL President Sheikh Hasina was arrested on July 16 last year and released on an executive order on June 11 following an understanding between her and the government. She is currently in the US for treatment.

Khaleda had been pressing the government for the release of her detained sons Tarique and Arafat Rahman Koko and allowing them to travel abroad for treatment, which ultimately delayed the understanding with the BNP.

Upon release yesterday, the BNP chief went straight to the graveyard of her husband, slain president Ziaur Rahman, through the Old MP Hostel road to place wreaths and offer fateha.

Party supporters and activists gathered in Zia Udyan and adjacent areas gave her a rapturous welcome by releasing balloons and pigeons, showering floral petals, chanting slogans, and clapping and singing songs when Khaleda in her usual outfit of saree and sunglasses got down from a white Nissan Patrol at the entrance of Zia's grave at12:05pm.

BNP Secretary General Khandaker Delwar Hossain greeted Khaleda with a bouquet.

But it was not easy for the BNP chief to reach the grave of her husband pushing through the huge crowd. It took her about seven minutes to reach the grave.

Flanked by senior party colleagues including Delwar, MK Anwar, Tanvir Ahmed Siddiqui and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, she placed wreaths at Zia's grave and offered prayer. Reformist leaders of the BNP including Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Hafizuddin Ahmed, however, did not turn up.

An emotional Khaleda stood there for a while before coming out of the graveyard premises. Her security personnel were seen struggling to manage the euphoric party supporters carrying party and national flags.

As her car tried to drive through the crowds, thousands of party leaders and supporters escorted her motorcade, jogging all the way from Zia's graveyard to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) Hospital where Tarique was undergoing treatment.

The usually 20-minute drive took over an hour as the supporters encircling her car were also moving slowly in a procession.

The busy Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue and other adjacent roads experienced terrific traffic congestions as vehicles remained stuck for hours, causing immense suffering to people.

By the time the BNP chief reached Shahbagh, supporters and activists of BNP and its front organisations had already gathered on the BSMMU premises, turning the hospital into a political ground as they chanted slogans like "The freedom of Khaleda is the power of movement".

They received Khaleda with flowers.

A huge contingent of police and party security men deployed there had to struggle to control the crowd desperately trying to have a glimpse of their leader. This left the hospital in a total chaos disrupting healthcare services. Many helpless patients and their relatives could not even complain about the nuisance.

Khaleda's car reached Block-D of the BSMMU at 1:32pm but she could not get down because of the huge crowd that also included media persons. Police had to charge truncheons to clear off the crowd and make way for Khaleda.

BNP leaders Tariqul Islam, Mir Mohammad Nasir, Amanullah Aman, Fazlul Haq Milon and Nasiruddin Ahmed Pintu, who are detained at the hospital's prison cells, waved from their cells to welcome Khaleda.

It was an emotional moment for Khaleda when she met her son Tarique at a hospital cabin after 18 months. Khaleda had not met Tarique since he was arrested by the joint forces on March 7 last year.

Khaleda broke into tears hugging Tarique. Tarique's wife Zubaida Rahman and their daughter Zaima and a few close relatives present there also got emotional.

Khaleda talked to physicians and enquired about Tarique's physical condition. She spent two hours and 10 minutes with only her family members.

Later, she had a half-hour long closed-door meeting with Khandaker Delwar, M Shamsul Islam and Tarique about the party's next course of action.

It was learnt that the meeting mainly discussed Tarique's political future.

Khaleda bade farewell to Tarique, Zubaida and her granddaughter and left the hospital.

Tarique and his wife and daughter left the country for London last night.

Making her way through the same crowd outside the hospital, Khaleda drove to her party's central office at Naya Paltan.

Blocking traffic movement, swarms of party supporters were waiting to welcome her at the party office which had remained shuttered since early January last year.

The police charged truncheon on the BNP supporters as they made a mad scramble to enter the party office following Khaleda. They pelted stones at police in retaliation, creating chaos in the area. Delwar and Tanvir later brought the situation to normal.

A dozen horn-honking motorcyclists also disrupted traffic movement on city streets throughout the day.

Later at a press conference, Khaleda urged the government to create a level playing field for all parties to take part in the general election.

She said her party is not against holding of upazila polls, but noted that the task of this government is to hold national elections first. "Like other political parties, I am also demanding parliamentary elections first," she said.

Making her case for a general election at the earliest, she said people's sufferings would go and the country will move forward again once a representative government is in power.

The BNP chief demanded withdrawal of the state of emergency, saying a free and acceptable election is not possible amid emergency rules, and that any election without full participation would lose its acceptability.

Tears rolled down her face as Khaleda described the condition of her sons and the present situation of the country.

"People are now passing days in hardship," she said, adding that her two sons are also not well. "They are almost finished. Think what condition I have been through," she said.

Stating that her party will go to dialogues with the government and the Election Commission and contest the subsequent elections, she said the BNP believes in discussion.

On Tarique, Khaleda said he would stay away from politics while under treatment abroad according to doctors' advice.

"From now on, he will be out of politics for the time being. He will not get involved in any political activities," she said.

She, however, said Tarique would rejoin the BNP once he comes back to the country after recuperation, which she said may take as long as two to three years according to doctors.

Khaleda claimed that the BNP is united and would remain so in the future.

"I did not dump anybody from my party. The party remains the same as I left it a year ago," she said.

Stating that the BNP is still in a coalition and would contest the elections from that platform, Khaleda expressed hope that they would form the government if they worked unitedly and the elections were held in a free and fair manner.

Before leaving the party office at about 5:20pm, Khaleda waved to the cheering supporters from the first-floor balcony. She asked them to remain calm and face the situation cautiously.

Khaleda later drove to her cantonment residence. Party sources said she would leave the country within a few days to perform umrah.

Meanwhile, a team of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders led by its Ameer Motiur Rahman Nizami had a meeting with Khaleda late last night. The agenda of the meeting could be known.

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