Protesters demand release of jailed former Bangladesh leader

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DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Several hundred opposition supporters staged a protest in Bangladesh's capital on Thursday demanding the release of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who is serving a five-year prison sentence in a corruption case.

The protesters accused police of obstructing their sit-in, and a brief clash occurred when the authorities attempted to arrest a student opposition leader. No injuries were reported in the one-hour demonstration in downtown Dhaka.

Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, secretary general of Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said they would demonstrate in Dhaka and in small towns across the country on Saturday to protest the police action.

He said police have been interfering with a series of opposition protests since last month's jailing of Zia. Authorities have denied the allegation and said no arrests have been made without specific charges.

Also on Thursday, a team of defense lawyers met 72-year-old Zia in jail and discussed legal issues involving her bail request.

Zainul Abedin, one of the lawyers, told reporters after meeting Zia that they were hopeful the former prime minister would be released on bail. Zia's lawyers have said the case is politically motivated.

Abedin said the High Court where Zia has appealed her conviction will rule on Sunday whether she will be released. The court can grant bail while an appeal is pending.

Zia's party has been trying to build up an opposition movement since her jailing but so far has failed to gain momentum. Violent street protests are common in Bangladesh during political upheavals. The opposition says authorities are arresting its supporters and harassing many to apply pressure ahead of December national elections.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, said people should vote for her party in the election to continue the country's development and reject corruption. Critics acknowledge that development has been taking place but say corruption remains a major concern.

A court convicted Zia on Feb. 8 on charges of misusing her power and embezzling about $250,000. The conviction means that Zia, the archrival of Hasina, can be barred from running in the elections.

The court also sentenced Zia's son, Tarique Rahman, and four others to 10 years in prison for involvement in the case.

Bangladesh law says anyone imprisoned for more than two years cannot run for office for the next five years, but Law Minister Anisul Huq has said the final decision rests with the courts.

Zia faces more than 30 other charges, ranging from corruption to sedition. Rahman, her son and heir-apparent, lives in London. He was tried in absentia.

Bangladesh politics are deeply fractious, with rivals Hasina and Zia ruling the country alternately since 1991, when democracy was restored.

Both women came from political dynasties. Zia is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, a general-turned-president who was assassinated in 1981. Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's independence leader and first president who was assassinated in 1975 along with most of his family members.

In the last election in 2014, Zia's party and its political allies boycotted the race, allowing Hasina to return to power with a landslide victory.

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