DHAKA (Reuters) - Former Bangladesh Prime Minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia was jailed for five years for corruption on Thursday as thousands of supporters took to the streets of the capital to protest her innocence.
Khaleda, her son and aides were convicted of stealing 21 million taka ($253,000) in foreign donations received by an orphanage trust set up when she was last prime minister, from 2001 to 2006, lawyers said.
She plans to appeal against her conviction, lawyers said, and will mostly likely be freed on bail pending that process.
"She was given a shorter term considering her health and social status," Judge Mohammad Akhteruzzaman said as he passed sentence in a packed courtroom.
Khaleda’s son, Tarique Rahman, and four others were jailed for 10 years at the end of a case that lasted nearly 10 years.
Khaleda and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) say the charges are part of a plot to keep her and her family out of politics. Party leaders said more than 3,500 supporters have been detained over the past few days.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda, both related to former national leaders, have nursed a long and bitter rivalry as they have dominated politics in poverty-stricken Bangladesh for more than two decades.
The renewed tension between them raises the specter of a long, destabilizing spell of unrest for Bangladesh and its economy. Khaleda is due to run in parliamentary polls set for December and can still do so if an appeal is pending.
BNP senior leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi denounced the sentence, calling it "an attempt to eliminate the opponent".
Earlier on Thursday, the normally clogged streets of Dhaka were almost empty as bus and ferry services were cut and thousands of riot police spread out in anticipation of unrest.
Protesters gathered, shouting their support, forcing police to use tear gas to disperse them. Television broadcast images of motorcycles set on fire.
(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Nick Macfie)